Sports

End of Capital High School chapter coming up for Cougars ‘legend’ Chris Penner

A Hollywood screenwriter might have trouble getting a story like Chris Penner’s greenlit.

Penner’s a football star, who’s earned Olympian All-Area honors the past three seasons for Capital High School as a wide receiver. In an injury-plagued senior year, he still caught 32 passes for 835 yards and 13 touchdowns while playing defensive back and handling kicking duties.

He’s one of Thurston County’s clutch basketball performers, and has moved into second place among Capital scorers all-time with 1,368 points heading into the Cougars’ upcoming Class 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict playoff game against Spanaway Lake.

And he’s an A student, taking honors classes, on track to follow his father into a career as a physician.

He’s accomplished all that while dealing with the effects of Tourette’s Syndrome, a chronic neurological disorder he’s dealt with since age 5. He’s been an ambassador in the fight against the disease.

Penner isn’t a fictional character in a slightly unbelievable young adult novel. He’s as real as it gets, a known performer in the Thurston County sports scene since almost before he can remember.

Capital basketball coach Brian Vandiver coached against his future star when he was at Marshall Middle School, and Penner played at Griffin. But, that wasn’t the first he’d heard of Penner.

“Everyone knew the legend of Chris Penner long before he came to Capital,” Vandiver said. “He was playing Little Cougars in the third grade, up on the mezzanine, knocking down 3-pointers.”

Vandiver and Penner arrived at Capital the same year. The Cougars had finished 3-17 the previous season, and only won five games Penner’s freshman season.

Thrown into the mix as a slender ninth-grade point guard, he took his lumps, but set himself up for future success.

“It was a wake up call for sure, getting into high school and immediately playing against Lincoln and Wilson, guys like David Jenkins,” Penner said. “I never played against that much pressure. It got me acclimated very quickly and now pressure doesn’t get to me.”

Vandiver saw Penner struggle a bit, hitting a midseason wall, but knew what was coming.

“It made it real easy to come in as a brand new coach when you have a freshman who has the ability to be that special,” the fourth-year coach said. “His body took a beating, but he learned a lot.”

During Penner’s sophomore season, T.J. Mickelson — now playing at Lake Region State College in North Dakota after transferring from Washington State — returned from Black Hills to join Penner, Grant Erickson and other long-time Cougars teammates.

“That’s when Chris made his biggest jump,” Vandiver said. “He was able to move back to his natural (shooting) guard position. His confidence rose, his defense got better. You could see he wasn’t afraid of anything his sophomore year. He’d played a full varsity season, nothing scared him anymore.”

The Cougars won the first 3A South Sound Conference championship and advanced to the state tournament in the Tacoma Dome before being bounced out of the 3A state tournament by Wilson, 58-53, in a game Penner sees as a high mark — thus far — in his career.

“We had been down seven and tied it with a minute to go. No one thought we could win that game, especially after T.J. got hurt (late in the regular season),” Penner recalled. “After we tied it, Emmitt Matthews hit a shot and they stayed ahead, but being able to play that well at the Tacoma Dome is a great memory.”

While Capital’s football team hasn’t made any postseason runs during Penner’s career, his ability on the field is as impressive to opponents as his basketball skills.

“Chris is a great physical kid, when he’s on the field he’s one of the best athletes out there,” Yelm football coach Jason Ronquillo said. “When he comes and stands next to you, you say, ‘I want one of those guys.’ He’s an absolute gamer. I wish I could coach a kid like him.”

Vandiver sees Penner first and foremost as a clutch performer who energizes Capital’s fans no matter the sport.

“I have never coached a player like Chris,” he said. “You know if it’s football you can throw the ball up and he’s going to come down with it. In basketball, if it’s the last five seconds of a game and we’re down one or tied, he’s going to make the shot. You just know it.

“You can’t coach it, you can’t instill it in somebody. He has a competitive fire I’ve never seen and may never see again. When the game is on the line he gets this look, he has this mannerism. You just know he’s going to get it done.”

During this basketball season, the Cougars finished in a first-place tie with Timberline for the regular season title. Penner and the Blazers’ own two-sport star, Hunter Campau, traded heroics.

In December at Capital, Campau drove the lane with less than two seconds to go for a layup that beat the Cougars, 56-55. Three weeks ago, Penner returned the favor, scoring on a jumper that beat the Blazers, 56-54, in Lacey.

“He has confidence in his shot and doesn’t back down to anyone,” said Campau, who played with Penner on the Thurston County-based P-Deck AAU team coached by Olympia’s John Kiley. “He’s a true competitor.”

“There isn’t a moment too big for him,” Timberline coach Allen Thomas said.

“I have the most confidence in those situations,” Penner said. “I have complete confidence in my teammates and I’ll for sure pass it out if something opens up. But, if you’re having a good game and you’ve been seeing the ball go through the hoop, you know you’ll make it.”

Entering the postseason, Penner, who has an offer from Seattle Pacific University in basketball but hasn’t yet decided which sport to play in college, sees a return trip to the Tacoma Dome as realistic.

Capital is 18-2, with only one-point losses to Central Kitsap and Timberline marring its record.

“This team has the most potential I’ve played with,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talent. We’ve shown spurts throughout the season of the way we can play. If we can put that all together, we’ll go far.”

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