The last time Jeff Mladenich was involved in a Fish Bowl was the late 1980s. He was the quarterback for the Gig Harbor Tides.
In his four years at Gig Harbor High, he never once beat Peninsula.
“They got us,” Mladenich said. “They had some really good talent. We got up on them one year but they came storming back. Peninsula was a powerhouse.”
Now, Mladenich will be involved in the Fish Bowl once again. This time around, he’s the offensive coordinator for the Tides. Mladenich, who lives in University Place and teaches at Goodman Middle School, came over to Gig Harbor from Eatonville with head coach George Fairhart.
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It took a while for Mladenich to get back to the harbor. He played quarterback at Boise State University after high school and graduated from BSU in 1992. One year later, Fairhart reached out to him to teach and coach at Eatonville. Mladenich jumped on the opportunity.
Mladenich took a hiatus from coaching football when he took a position as athletic director of a high school in Nigeria. He ended up staying in Africa from 1996 to 2006. But he always missed football.
“I consulted with George and we kept in contact,” Mladenich said. “It was hard to be away from football for that long.”
Once he came back to the states, he joined Fairhart again as an assistant at Eatonville. And now, he’s back teaching and coaching in Gig Harbor, where it all started.
“It’s refreshing and it’s exciting to be a part of the Gig Harbor community again,” Mladenich said. “There’s a lot of support not only for schools and commerce, but support for the kids to have a great life growing up. It’s a great place to grow up, it’s beautiful typography here. I’ve traveled all over the world, there’s nothing like it other than Croatia. It’s really rewarding for how much I’ve done and how much I’ve put in with teaching and coaching, to come back to a community that’s this full of support. Whether it’s Peninsula or Gig Harbor, we’re all one. We’re a strong district and a strong learning community.”
Mladenich, 47, is surprised to see how far Gig Harbor High athletics have come. When Mladenich played football, GHHS was still a relatively new school, having been founded in 1978.
“The tradition has been building and building,” he said. “They’ve added some state titles in cross country, track, baseball and so on. Being a longtime educator, we support everyone’s programs. It’s really nice to come in and have really great programs throughout. We’re trying to encourage all our kids to go out for other sports. It’s a really ideal situation.”
Mladenich set a state record for touchdowns in a game against Yelm while at Gig Harbor (it has since been broken) with eight — all coming in the first half.
“Nobody had seen the ‘run and shoot’ offense,” Mladenich said. “We had some speedy guys, I was pretty accurate and had a good line. But I wasn’t much for individual performances. I was more concerned with the team doing well and winning.”
While Mladenich didn’t win a Fish Bowl, he certainly remembers the atmosphere around the big game.
“As a player and a coach, your primary focus is on playing the game,” Mladenich said. “I think the coolest thing is the community support. … Everybody here grew up playing together. Everyone is going in to win it. It creates a great atmosphere. The community comes together. In the end, we’re all one. The players have to block, you still have to tackle. You can’t have turnovers. That’s all you can hope for.”
Fairhart said he has talked to Mladenich about the rivalry.
“I know it’s a big game,” Fairhart said. “He remembers the details. We have some other staff members that played at Gig Harbor, they share their stories also. It’s a rivalry game and has a lot of importance to the community. Most importantly, it’s a memory making experience for the kids.”
Mladenich said he’s excited to experience the Fish Bowl once again.
“I can remember people having to be roped off, all the way around the end zones,” he said. “You hear comments from the crowd — hopefully a few more positive comments than negative ones. That’s what makes it fun. I really enjoyed it. I liked playing in big games. But it all comes down to execution.”
And who knows — if Gig Harbor executes well enough, maybe Mladenich will get his first Fish Bowl win, after all these years.