Minutes after the gymnasium opened, a man in a black suit slipped through a side door.
He’d been seen many times before, even spotted driving his timeworn van into the parking lot.
There was no need to check his identification. All knew he was Steilacoom High School’s longtime head varsity basketball coach.
But this was before the C team game. Wasn’t he rather early? The man, walking in with familiar, slightly hunched-over posture, went right to the visiting bench, then up a few rows in the grandstands and took a seat at the scorer’s table.
Gary Wusterbarth established his Sentinels program almost 30 years ago. So even if it means he has to keep the scorebook, he’ll stay in tune with due diligence.
That commitment is largely why Wusterbarth is approaching his 500th career coaching victory. His next try is Monday when Steilacoom visits Bonney Lake.
But ask him about his shot at a milestone victory and he will tell you it’s just another day in 29 seasons as Sentinels coach.
Wusterbarth, 59, would become just the fourth coach in the state to win 500 games while having never been a head coach at another school — joining Centralia’s Ron Brown, Naselle’s Lyle Patterson and Reardan’s Gene Smith.
“The word I always use to describe Gary is ‘stable.’ He’s been a stable influence on anybody’s he’s ever been around,” said Mark Morris boys coach Bill Bakamus, who earlier this month became the 11th coach to win 500 games overall statewide.
AT A CROSSROADS
The oldest of five siblings, Wusterbarth was raised just a few blocks from the Pacific Lutheran University campus in Parkland where he would eventually star as a two-sport athlete.
A rangy 6-foot-2, Wusterbarth was a starting post player at Washington High School under coach Bob Ross.
“They called me ‘Mr. Inside,’” Wusterbarth said. “But I did shoot outside a lot.”
That is exactly what he did for the Lutes, starting two seasons at off guard and helping PLU to a runner-up finish in the Northwest Conference in 1976-77.
Wusterbarth also led the school to three conference titles in men’s tennis and an NAIA district title his final season as a doubles champion.
After helping out Ross for one basketball season at Washington in 1983-84, Wusterbarth weighed three big options in what were key in shaping his life as a history teacher and basketball coach.
In the span of two hours one spring day in 1984, Wusterbarth had three offers: coach another season at Washington, become an assistant at PLU under recently hired Bruce Haroldson, or replace Steilacoom’s John Medak, who was fresh off a state championship.
He consulted Ross, and chose to become the third boys basketball coach in Steilacoom school history.
“I learned a lot from Ross,” Wusterbarth said. “A lot about scouting an opponent. But we also had a lot of talks about how to keep it all in perspective.”
START OF A LEGACY
The first person he visited after taking the job was a Steilacoom assistant coach named Bruce Hayes, who taught nearby at the Pioneer Middle School. Hayes was part of the staff that led the Sentinels to the Class 1A championship in 1984.
“I needed a connection to the players, and he had traveled that road,” Wusterbarth said.
The great basketball coaches seemingly always have that reliable right-hand man on the bench for the long haul. Much like the way Mark Williams at Lincoln and Curtis coach Tim Kelly, that is what Hayes has done for Wusterbarth.
“I get input on what we do,” Hayes said. “And he lets me do the defensive end stuff.”
In his first season, Wusterbarth led the Sentinels back to the Class 1A title game in 1985. They throttled Highland, 78-55, to cap a 23-2 season and repeat as state champions.
“If you can continue what somebody has already started with no letdown … that brought credibility,” Hayes said. “Things fell in line, and the kids bought in.”
Wusterbarth set unyielding standards for the way his teams would play at Steilacoom. It started with what players wore on their practice T-shirts: “I play defense or I don’t play at all.”
“He didn’t care what you did on the offensive end,” said Mark Lovelady, a former Steilacoom guard. “But he was not going to let you trade buckets.”
As demanding as Wusterbarth is on the court, he was calm and reasonable off it. Just ask Lovelady, who received advice from the coach that changed his professional path.
“My sophomore year, I had decided I was going to work as a grocery bagger at Safeway,” Lovelady said. “Gary and Bruce sat me down the first day of practice. Both of them said they didn’t want me to make a rash decision that would affect the rest of my life, so they said they would give me the night to think about it and that they would let me turn out for basketball the next day.”
And indeed, Lovelady chose to stick with basketball — eventually leaving as an all-Nisqually League performer in 1987 and taking over as the boys coach and now athletic director at Life Christian Academy.
“I really respect Gary,” Lovelady said, “for his passion for kids.”
In Wusterbarth’s 29 seasons, Steilacoom has won 11 Nisqually League and West Central District championships, and advanced to the state tournament 17 times — with that lone 1A title in that first season as well as a state runner-up finish to Zillah in 1994.
ENTER PETE SAMPRAS
Away from the basketball court, very few people know Wusterbarth. He married a former Steilacoom teacher (Sandy Brown), has two daughters (Megan, Allison) and prefers a private life in Puyallup.
What a lot of people don’t know is that at the same time Wusterbarth was breaking into the coaching ranks, he also tried his hand for one season in professional tennis on the Challenger Tour, then became one of the West Coast’s top chair umpires for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) World Tour and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) from 1976-1991.
Wusterbarth officiated Davis Cup and Federation Cup events, as well as World TeamTennis tournaments. He also was part of five U.S. Opens, overseeing the likes of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl on the men’s side, and Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert on the women’s side.
But Wusterbarth saw nothing like he did at the 1988 U.S. Open. Starting as a baseline judge on Court 27, when a scheduled opponent did not show up for a match, a wild-card alternate was allowed in — 16-year-old Pete Sampras.
It was Sampras’ first appearance at a U.S. Open. He lost to Peru’s Jaime Yzaga that day. Sampras would go on to win 14 Grand Slam singles titles, including five U.S. Open crowns.
“When that match was over, I told people I had just watched the next great U.S. Open champion,” Wusterbarth said.
Wusterbarth never did stay an entire U.S. Open tournament, forfeiting the chance to officiate a men’s or women’s championship.
“I had to get back to school,” Wusterbarth said.
Steilacoom High School is home. He’s had plenty of tempting offers in basketball — and tennis — to go elsewhere. He’s turned them down to stay with the one school where he’s taught full-time and the only basketball program he has ever guided, leading to his induction into the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2007.
“I grew up with Frosty (Westering) at PLU. His sons, Brad and Scott, were some of my best friends,” Wusterbarth said. “I was around the man and the product, making the big time where you were at. I knew what that meant.”
As for approaching that milestone 500th coaching victory, he repeated much of the same sentiment he shared when he won his 400th game eight years ago in a 68-56 victory over Lakes.
“When I reflected on it at No. 400, it was all the hard work the kids put in to get that number,” Wusterbarth said. “All I had to do was sit on the bench and direct traffic.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442