Tom Kelly stepped down from his most recent prep coaching post last April, saying he’d get back into the high school game if the right opportunity presented itself.
The right door opened last month.
Kelly was hired as the head girls basketball coach at W.F. West High School on Thursday, taking over a team coming off of three straight State 2A championship game appearances.
And for the veteran coach — and owner of his own championship ring, courtesy of a two-year coaching stint at River Ridge High School — the fit was just right.
After resigning as Centralia’s head girls coach, Kelly spent the last year coaching AAU ball through the Chehalis-based Pacific Athletic Center’s Xpress basketball program, and working with players from fourth grade up to high school.
The eighth-grade and high school teams he coached both included a handful of players in Chehalis schools.
“This was probably the perfect situation. The kids are really into basketball, in every grade,” he said. “You could really build something, and I just didn’t think I could get a better deal.”
That inroad helped on the hiring end, as well.
“He had a heck of an advantage,” W.F. West athletic director Jeff Johnson said. “He’s been working with our girls, and been in our gym for years, with his grandkids in there. He’s very familiar with our girls.”
Kelly’s resume — 24 years as a head coach, nine trips to state, the 2010 State 2A championship with River Ridge — was impressive, Johnson said, as was the support from the current players and their families.
“Having the support of the current parents and players is a great start,” Johnson said. “Sometimes we work years for that, so that’s a great way to get started off.”
Kelly, 62, coached at White Pass High School for 19 years, stepping down in 2009 to take over at River Ridge. After two seasons he was back in East Lewis County for the 2011-12 season with the Morton-White Pass Timberwolves.
He then coached in Centralia for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, leading the Tigers to a 13-12 record and their first postseason appearance in seven years during his first season on the bench. Playing rivalry games against the Tigers, he added, was the only drawback to the Chehalis job.
“I still think the world of those girls I had at Centralia, so that’s a little weird, to say the least,” he added, pointing out that his current AAU team includes one of his former Hub City players in point guard Madi Crews.
Kelly takes over for Henri Weeks who, coincidentally, also coached at Centralia before starting his 13-year run in Chehalis.
“Henri built quite a program here. He had every grade going, had uniforms for them, and built quite a basketball program,” Kelly said. “I’m very fortunate to have this chance, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
The Bearcats return two starters — guards Jessica McKay and Shasta Lofgren — from a team that played for the state championship in March, though the team won’t have the same amount of size that defined the last half-decade of Bearcat girls basketball.
“There’s a mix of young and old,” Kelly said of the current team. “I don’t know the league like I did, but I think we’re right there with anybody.”
The fans will see a change in style and basketball philosophy. Weeks’ recent Bearcat teams played to their height advantage; Kelly’s teams, at every stop of his career, have focused on full-court pressure defense and a running offense.
Johnson, in Tenino at the time, coached against Kelly’s White Pass teams in the 1990s.
“His defensive sets and pressure will have you staying up later than you want to at night,” he said. “You better be ready to go handle the ball.”
Notes: Kelly’s Centralia teams went 0-4 against W.F. West, while his River Ridge teams were 5-1 against the Bearcats. The one loss was in the 2010 regular-season finale for both teams; River Ridge went on to finish the season 26-1. … Kelly has seen the controversial new Bearcat logo. “If you’ve seen it, on, like, plastic, on a different deal than what you seen in the paper or on Twitter, it looks pretty good, actually. I kind of like it,” he said. “It’s different. I looked up a Bearcat — Googled it — and that’s what they look like.”