When Gabby Wade became River Ridge High School’s third girls basketball coach in as many seasons, her players didn’t know her personally, but they had walked past her picture every day.
“She’s in our Hall of Fame,” said junior Caitlin Yenne. “We knew of her, knew what she accomplished here.”
A decade after an All-State playing career that included leading River Ridge to three consecutive Pacific 9 league titles and three straight appearances in the Class 3A state tournament, the 28-year-old Wade hopes to add to her legacy from the sideline.
“It’s special to be at River Ridge,” said Wade. Right before being offered the position, she was a finalist for a community college head coaching job.
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“Now that I’m here, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” she said. “I’ve always been prideful about River Ridge. To have the opportunity to mentor these girls, help breathe life into them and give them a sense of pride is a great feeling.”
The Hawks, who played for Steve Schultz, also River Ridge’s football coach, last season after four successful seasons under now-Olympia coach Jackie Robinson, are off to a 5-3 start, 3-1 in the Class 2A South Puget Sound League.
“She holds us to a higher standard. She’s very disciplined, which is important for such a young team,” said Yenne, All-SPSL last season and part of a Hawks squad that has no seniors. “She knows what it takes to play at the next level.”
Wade, twice The Olympian’s All-Area Player of the Year while in high school, went on to play at Western Washington University, where she earned honorable mention All-Great Northwest Athletic Conference honors as a senior.
“Gabby has always had such a passion for basketball,” said Vikings coach Carmen Dolfo. “It’s so great to see her have such an ability to pass that passion on to her players.”
Dolfo was the last in a long line of coaches who Wade mentions as influencing her as a player. Her father, Willie Wade Jr., was the first.
With her dad’s career in the Army prompting regular moves, Wade didn’t take sports seriously until winding up in Lacey during sixth grade.
“Before that, the only thing I’d done was cheerleading at Fort Benning (in Georgia) when I was seven or eight,” she said.
She quickly fell in love with basketball, playing first for AAU teams coached by Derrick Pringle Sr., then reaching River Ridge in time to be part of a rebuilding effort by then-coach Bill Wirtzberger.
An aspect of Wirtzberger’s program that Wade plans to replicate was a feeder program that featured youth teams and River Ridge players going out to connect with elementary and middle school girls after their own practices. The plan paid off.
River Ridge won back-to-back 2A state championships in 2007 and 2008, and the Hawks program became a family affair. Three daughters of current assistant Rodney McDonald played: All-Area Player of the Year Jasmine, former Evergreen State and St. Martin’s player Keisha and current St. Mary’s College point guard Samira. The Russell sisters, Sophie and Kelsey, both went on to play for Central Washington. Wade’s younger sister, Necy, competes for the track team at Washington.
“It’s like that corny line, ‘I believe the children are our future,’ ” Wade says. “So many kids have wonderful, beautiful hearts, but they don’t know a thing about the game of basketball. We’ve got kids coming into high school with the basketball IQ of a fourth-grader. To change that, we’ve got to lay a foundation and create a positive atmosphere.”
Yenne says she believes her coach’s relative youth and ties to River Ridge, where she also works as a paraeducator, help create that atmosphere.
“She knows what we’re going through,” Yenne said. “She’s been here and not that long ago. Plus, we’ve always had men coaching us and as a female she knows the differences in how girls play.”
Wade finds her memory drifting back on occasion.
“I’ll be talking to our athletic director (Gary Larson) and remember when he was my chemistry teacher,” she said. “Once at practice, I got mad and remembered Bill (Wirtzberger) slamming a ball down so hard he dislocated his thumb.”
With stints as an assistant to Robinson several years ago and at Pacific Lutheran University more recently, Wade was no stranger to coaching, but found the slide into the head coach’s seat a big one.
“Every decision is on you,” she said. “From when practice starts to what color socks we’re going to wear. You have to connect with the parents, make sure the kids know you’ve got their backs. The challenge is to stay focused on what our long-term goals are without getting bogged down in the details.”
After a win over Stadium this week, Wade noticed a change in herself.
“I’ve grown so much already,” she said. “I love what I’m doing. I used to want to go out, but now I’m glad to just stay home and watch film.”