Pride in their colors: Some Grand Valley grads find themselves coaching for, against alma mater
In high school athletics, the importance of school pride is drilled into every player.
Players are taught to bleed Wildcat blue, Warrior red, Tiger orange, or Bulldog maroon.
Many players aspire to one day be coaches, and sometimes the up-and-coming coaches are forced to put aside previous loyalties to take whatever opportunity is available.
REVERSING THE RIVALRY
Fruita Monument High School softball coach Jamie Dunn has turned the Wildcats into perennial contenders in her two seasons as head coach. This past season, the Wildcats made the Final Four of the state softball tournament and had a chance to win their first state title since 1989.
Ten years ago, the thought of Fruita in the Final Four went against everything Dunn believed in.
She was a three-sport star athlete at Central, and graduated in 1997. Dunn was one of the first softball players from District 51 to be voted onto the Denver Post’s All-Colorado team.
“The same softball rivalries have always been there,” Dunn said. “We both (Central and Fruita Monument) were good, but we felt like Fruita got all the press.”
Dunn went on to become a Division II All-American softball player at Mesa State College before taking her first coaching job coach at Palisade in 2002. Dunn was with the Bulldogs for four seasons, and took a few years off from coaching before taking the Fruita Monument job in 2009.
While at Palisade, Dunn said she really didn’t think much of being at another school in the Grand Valley. The Bulldogs were a lower classification and any time she played Palisade as an athlete, it was usually an easy victory. But taking over at Fruita took some getting used to.
“At first, it was weird coaching at a school that was such a huge rival,” Dunn said. “It was weird wearing the blue because it was pretty intense then, like it is now.
“I’ve had friends on Facebook that I went to Central with congratulate me on the season and say ‘we’re happy for you even though you went over to Fruita.’ “
Another coach in the Grand Valley experienced the opposite side of that switch.
Casey Doss spent nearly eight years away from the Grand Valley after graduating from Fruita Monument in 1992. Doss played football, basketball and baseball for the Wildcats. Doss went to college at Northwest Oklahoma State, and taught for four years in Oklahoma. He got the opportunity to come back to the valley in 2002.
“A job opened up at Central and I got an interview with Vern (McGee) and Paul Cain and it all fell into place,” Doss said. “I interviewed a couple of times at Fruita Monument, but it didn’t work out. I was happy to get the job here and it’s been a good fit.”
Although it’s not the same school they attended, having the experience of playing in the Grand Valley can help when coaching the current group of players.
“It helps you perpetuate the rivalries,” Doss said. “Kids don’t want to hear you talk about the old days, but it helps you get the rivalries going and you can get the fire lit under those kids.”
Doss is using many of the motivational tactics as an assistant football coach and girls golf coach at Central that he learned as a player at Fruita Monument.
“I had some great coaches at Fruita Monument like Dave Fox and Denny Squibb,” Doss said. “So now I’m giving back, and hopefully letting the players know that high school sports is a fun thing to be a part of, and to cherish the moment.”
Fruita Monument baseball coach Ray McLennan graduated from Central in 1984 after playing baseball for his father, John. McLennan enjoyed a successful baseball career at Mesa State, and once McLennan graduated and began his teaching career, he had one school in mind.
“I tried to go back to Central,” McLennan said. “I knew a lot of people there. I did my student teaching there so I was fortunate to grab a job when it opened.”
McLennan began his coaching career in 1990 as an assistant for his father before taking over the head baseball job in 1992. McLennan coached at Central until 1997 when he stepped down.
“It taught me a lot of things in both coaching and teaching,” McLennan said. “You have to make decisions as a coach that as a player you don’t have to worry about.”
McLennan was away from the high school coaching scene for 10 years when he took over as baseball coach at Fruita Monument. It had been more than 20 years since he played for Central and 10 years since he coached there, but McLennan still felt his old loyalties.
“It was a little strange, at first, because I’d always been Central,” McLennan said. “The rivalries you had have always been one way. Then it’s switched.
“But the Fruita community has been excellent, and it’s funny, because you get to a point and the rivalry switches and (Fruita Monument) starts to feel like home.”
Although older generations are aware of McLennan’s past, his current group of players don’t know any different.
“I don’t know if any of them know, except my son (Logan),” McLennan said. “And kids’ perspectives are so short, they probably think I’ve been here forever.”
Fruita Monument girls basketball coach Dan Schmalz still has enough clothes from his alma mater, Olathe, to outfit him for weeks. The fourth-year coach grew up in the small town, graduated in 2000 then got his first coaching and teaching job there. Schmalz was a two-sport athlete for the Pirates, so his return in 2004 didn’t go unnoticed.
“We were in such a small town that even the younger group knew I played in Olathe,” Schmalz said.
Schmalz went home but wasn’t given the top spot immediately. He paid his dues by coaching freshman volleyball, junior varsity girls soccer, and served as an assistant for the boys basketball team and football team.
“I went there without any guaranteed coaching position, but I knew someone would need me to coach something,” Schmalz said. “I think it really helped me as a coach.”
In 2007, Schmalz moved to Class 5A Fruita Monument, two ranks in classification higher than Olathe. The Wildcats would play Olathe in the summer, but hadn’t faced the Pirates in a regular season game until this season, when Fruita defeated Olathe 46-44 during December.
“I have families that have known me since I was a little kid, and they were pulling for Olathe, but cheering for me,” Schmalz said. “It was a weird feeling coaching against Olathe because I knew every kid on that team.”
Schmalz’s small-town mentality has helped turn the Wildcats’ program around. Fruita has progressively won more games every year since he arrived, including making the second round of the postseason last year and holding a 13-8 record this season.
“We talk to them all the time about playing with pride and passion and earning your respect,” Schmalz said. “You can’t think because you are a big school you automatically get respect, and coming from a small town, you always feel like an underdog and that you have to work that much harder.”
Although other coaches have been forced to change allegiances from their alma mater, Grand Junction tennis coach Carol Elliott has been a Tiger for a long time.
Elliott graduated from Grand Junction in 1986, and got a coaching and teaching position with Grand Junction in 1994.
“If any job had opened I would have took it, but I was lucky that Junction had it,” Elliott said. “I’m glad it worked out because I’m a Tiger all the way through and I don’t think that would have changed.”
Elliott’s long-time association with the school has helped her preach school pride.
“I took a lot of pride in Grand Junction when I was a student-athlete,” Elliott said. “So I always knew about the pride that was there with Grand Junction.”
Grand valley greats
Many of the Grand Valley-bred coaches that have returned to coach said it was just a desire to be involved with high school athletics in the area. Their positive experiences as a player motivated them to stay local.
“Everyone appreciates that high school athletics are important here,” McLennan said. “There is a lot of coverage, there is a sense of community and that’s neat for our kids to have.”