Let's be honest — it's not going to be easy to follow in Eric Viuhkola's footsteps.
Viuhkola, the West Linn boys basketball coach for 11 seasons before retiring at the end of the 2021-22 season, won four state championships with the Lions, helped launch the career of Boston Celtics guard Payton Pritchard and led his team to wins in more than 76% of its games.
None of that, however, makes new coach Robert Key any less excited to take the Lions' reins for the coming 2022-23 season.
"Eric's legacy is the winning tradition that's here and I thought it'd be a good fit for me as well," said Key, 56, who most recently coached Grant for eight seasons. "I just felt that going into the end of my career, this is a good place to call home. … I felt that I did a tremendous job in the PIL and, you know, change is good. And I think this is my final stop."
Key has built his own impressive record of success, beginning with a 14-year stint as an assistant coach at Cleveland. After that, he followed up as head coach at Roosevelt (Key went 102-99 with the Roughriders, including a Class 5A runner-up finish in 2007), spent two years at Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, then coached an eight-year stretch at Grant (the Generals went 142-65 under Key, including a Class 6A state championship in 2018).
"I want us to be successful as a team, not as individuals."
— Robert Key
While he leaves Grant in the rearview mirror, Key expressed pride in his success there and shared his determination to continue the many strong relationships he built.
"The administration, the teachers, the people that I worked with in sports, the coaches, (I) built a foundation of relationships," Key said. "I'm still going to keep those relationships. They've wished me nothing but the best moving on and Grant's in a good place. I left it in a good place and I wish them nothing but the best."
Key said he's ready to build new relationships at West Linn and is already learning a lot about the community, connecting with players, parents and other supporters as he assisted Viuhkola at the second annual Payton Pritchard Basketball Camp.
"One thing I learned here at West Linn is that a lot of the kids are two- and three-sport athletes, which I adore a lot, because back in my day, I did all three as well — basketball, baseball and football," Key said. "To see that kids have … other outlets, that's big to me. That was something I said in the parent meeting — I do not hold kids back. If they're not a part of summer league, if they're … at baseball, they're at soccer, lacrosse — (that's OK because) the relationships and the communication have been outstanding."
Looking ahead, Key said he looks forward to building on many of the strengths that Viuhkola built into his program over the years, strengths, he said, that he's emphasized in his own work.
"I like Eric's philosophy — he and I are pretty similar in a lot of ways," Key said. "I'm not trying to come in and change too much because I love what he's done with the program. Like I said, I want to build off of his legacy to where we're going to have the same type of style. We'll play up-tempo, be very defensive-oriented — that tough, tenacious defense — and then just exciting basketball where it's playing the right way and playing for each other."
Looking at his new team — which now includes guard Adrian Mosley, the PIL Player of the Year who transferred from Grant for his senior year — the Lions will be led by all-state senior guard and Oregon commit Jackson Shelstad and a strong group of experienced seniors including Mark Hamper, Blake Oltmans and Drake Gabel.
"Number one, we'll be extremely deep. We'll have an extremely deep program, a senior-oriented varsity team," Key said. "Watching all the kids come through, from the incoming freshmen to all the levels, I see nothing but greatness. I mean, these kids have put the work in."
Likewise, Key is ready to do his part, ready to learn and adapt and work and lead. And if his players continue their work, he said, the sky is the limit for 2022-23.
"(If) we are picked to win it, well, we got to put the work in to win it," Key said. "There's gonna be teams after us, but I'm very well prepared for what's going to happen.
"We have two of the best players in the state of Oregon and I feel very comfortable with our approach, with our program and with our players. The goal is to win a league title and take one step at a time (after that) and see where it goes from there."
Like Viuhkola before him, Key promised that his West Linn teams will create the building blocks of their success in practice. He said he will prepare his teams to face opponents' best shots every night and vowed that the Lions will do it as a team.
"I'm big on assignments. I'm big on the task at hand and who we're playing … and the conversation I'm having with my team," he said. "I have to make sure that my scouting is correct and they are paying attention to their assignments and giving the best that we have every night — no days off, no nights off."
As to his practices and his attitude, Key pulls no punches — his practices will be hard and he expects his teams to win.
"I'm very selfish about getting things done the right way, and making sure our practice plans are very detailed and that we're getting after it every day," he said. "You've heard the (phrase), 'You practice like you play.' If you're practicing like this, I can guarantee that's going to happen in the game. And if you're doing things the right way in practice, it'll be a beautiful game to watch."
Beyond the talent, however, and more important even than the game plans and effort in practice, Key said that the key moving forward will be emphasizing the relationships between himself, his players, his coaches and his program's supporters and fans.
"The most important thing that I see with kids is the connection of playing together, everybody buying in and playing for each other," he said. "I want us to be successful as a team, not as individuals."
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