State basketball championship titles are like deep-sea fishing expeditions – you celebrate like mad when you land the big prize, even snap a few photographs – but eventually your mind greedily wanders back to the ones that got away.
The season is long, and goals are set months in advance. Each season has its own twists and turns – leading either to the road to the playoffs, and possibly the state tournament, or down the lonely path of looking to next season.
And even once in the playoffs, all it takes is one poor performance – one bad bounce – and the dream of winning a state title is ruined.
Any player of coach will tell you it is a stressful, difficult venture – but well worth it. Just ask Tim Kelly and Aubrey Shelton.
In 2001, Kelly was the boys coach at Lincoln High School, and Shelton was a starting forward for the Abes. They won all but one game that season, and ended up defeating Ferris, 61-54,
for the Class 4A title.
Today, both coach at their alma maters – Kelly at 4A Curtis and Shelton at 3A Lincoln – and begin their state tournament quests in the Tacoma Dome. Both would like nothing more than to land the ultimate prize, and capture that championship once again.
The first Shelton family member to learn about Kelly wasn’t Aubrey, or any of his five siblings. It was from Alan Shelton, their father, who was coaching youth basketball in Tacoma.
Kelly has just been hired at Lincoln in 1993, and was putting on a coaching clinic. Alan Shelton decided to go just to pick up a few ideas for plays to run in the half-court offense.
“All (Kelly) talked about was defense,” Aubrey Shelton said.
Kelly’s background and knowledge in that area is vast: Most of the man-to-man principles he uses today came from his days playing for former coach Len Stevens at Saint Martin’s University. Mixed in are tips he picked up from former Olympia High coach Al Sokaitis, whom he coached under when the Bears won the 3A title in 1986.
“Our defense led to a lot of our offense in 2001,” Kelly said. “We would turn teams over and run, and that would turn into layups.”
Lincoln was building for a championship run like that in 2001. Kelly was already in his eighth season, so his system was well-established. The Abes were coming off a disappointing end to 2000, losing a play-in game for the playoffs at South Kitsap – and returned almost everybody.
“We beat Foss, and they won state that year (in 2000),” Shelton said. “So we went into 2001 and thought this had to be our year.”
Lincoln played in the prestigious Santa Barbara Holiday Classic for the first time in 2001 – and won that tournament. The Abes came home confident, undefeated – and promptly dropped a King Holiday Hoopfest stunner to 3A champion Mount Vernon in KeyArena.
After the team arrived back at Lincoln later that night, Kelly called his players into the school weight room for a heart-to-heart meeting.
“He went through all of us, and called us out,” Shelton said. “It was a great wake-up call.”
Lincoln ran through the Narrows League and entered the state tournament with scorers Justin Holt and Leonard White, and Shelton the key force in the frontcourt.
“Aubrey was a tough player,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t a great athlete. He wasn’t fast. He wasn’t jumping on the rim and dunking. But he worked at getting better.”
And the Abes won four games in a row – the final three against Greater Spokane League opponents – to claim their first state title since 1975. Lincoln defended its crown in 2002.
“When you put yourself as one of the best teams in the state consistently, it bodes well for your system,” Kelly said.
Shelton graduated in 2001, played four seasons at the University of Puget Sound in former coach’s Eric Bridgeland’s wide-open, fast-paced system and found himself coaching soon after that.
His first real head coaching job came in 2006 when he was hired at Washington High School. The team went 2-19.
And when Kelly left for Curtis, the Lincoln job opened – and Shelton was hired in 2007.
Granted an opportunity to coach his youngest brother, Kaleb, Shelton led the Abes to a fourth-place finish in the 4A tournament. It is the program’s best state place under him.
“Every good coach, every good teacher and leader has to be true to yourself,” Shelton, 30, said. “My core beliefs have not changed much at all. I want to get my team to care about each other and play for each other. As far as Xs and Os, I was more into the UPS style.”
Oddly enough, in 2008, Shelton’s Lincoln squad met Kelly’s Curtis team in the first-round of the West Central District playoffs. The Vikings won, 80-51, in University Place.
Over the past couple seasons, with forward Tre’Shaun Fletcher as the team’s centerpiece, and now point guard Ahmaad Rorie on board, Shelton has tweaked his team’s blueprint.
No longer are they operating in breakneck speed on the offensive end. He runs a four-out, one-in system that allows Rorie to break defenders down off the dribble to either shoot, or feed Fletcher coming off the high post.
On defense, gone is the gambling-for-steals full-court press. Lincoln now grinds out possessions within the half court.
“My third year at Lincoln (in 2009), we lost a game or two when teams picked our press apart,” Shelton said. “It wasn’t working for us.”
Every coach goes through a period of refining – or downright changing – his or her philosophy. Shelton is no exception.
“Over the last couple years, Aubrey has started to figure some things out,” said Mark Williams, a Curtis assistant who was also on Kelly’s coaching staff at Lincoln. “He has had to experience some things his way and go through things to see if they worked – and had to make some adjustments.”
After back-to-back seasons of losing in the regional round, Lincoln is finally back in the 4A state tournament. The Abes are 21-3.
“We’ve kind of gone back to the old school,” Shelton said. “The coach Kelly stuff.”
It is state-tournament week at Curtis High School. At the outset, each player was handed a strict and thorough itinerary for the week, with topics ranging from the time of meetings and practice, to what time to wake up daily in anticipation of today’s 9 a.m. game, and what to eat for breakfast.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” Kelly said. “I like to be in control.”
In 20 seasons, this is his 10th trip to a state basketball tournament (seven at Lincoln, three at Curtis). He is 51. He knows all the drills, from getting a team prepared for a three-day grind of basketball, to all the media obligations – to even helping his booster club sell state-bound T-shirts to the community.
But even Kelly acknowledges that while his core coaching principles remain intact, his demeanor has changed through the years.
“I am not quite as intense,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if it’s because I am older. A lot of my coaching buddies say it is because of having kids of your own – especially daughters.”
For the past month, Curtis has been a well-oiled machine in terms of execution. It is the kind of unselfish, defensive-minded, efficient squad Kelly knows only comes around every so often.
And even he has incorporated some new things over the past few years.
“Scores come down in playoff time, and it is because the defense is more intense because you’re playing against better players and teams,” Kelly said. “So I’ve kind of understood how to become a good, executing half-court team on offense.”
He has taken advice from Kelvin Sampson, a former Washington State coach who is now in the NBA with the Houston Rockets. Kelly was a graduate assistant under Sampson for the Cougars.
“I’ve learned sets where you can control the tempo and the pace, and get shots for certain players in certain situations rather than just cut them loose in a straight motion offense,” Kelly said.
Today is the start of the season’s final journey – with Kelly and Shelton trying to accomplish separately what they did collectively in 2001.
“(Both winning titles) would be unbelievable,” Shelton said. “We will try to keep up our end of the bargain.”Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 todd.milles@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/preps @ManyHatsMilles