The La Grande Tigers not only enter the 2019 season missing six seniors from last fall’s squad that made a run to the 4A state semifinals, but with a new head coach.
The change at the top, though, is not a drastic one.
Sam Brown, who was the Tigers’ assistant coach under Kristen “Tiger” Rice and previously was La Grande’s head coach for four years — coaching the 2013 team that reached the state championship — is back at the helm after Rice, who was the head coach for three years, chose to step away from the position.
“I enjoy the privilege of coaching the girls team,” Brown said. “It’s a team I’ve been associated with for going on 10 years. I just really love this team and the players and the parents, and the whole organization. It’s good to be a part of it.”
Because of Brown and Rice’s history together on the sideline — Rice was also an assistant coach under Brown — there won’t be much in the way of changes.
And why tamper with what has worked? The Tigers have won the Greater Oregon League each of the last eight years — twice in that time reaching the semifinals or further — have become a power in Northeast Oregon and shown the ability to mix it up with west-side schools in the postseason.
“They are well acquainted with me and the philosophy that Tiger coached by,” Brown said. “We coached together with it, so there’s not a lot of changing of system and approach. There are a few things that are different, but for the most part it’s business as usual — working toward the high possession beautiful game.”
Katie Perry, one of the seniors who is back for La Grande, said the transition has been a smooth one.
“We’re all really sad that Tiger’s not coaching, but since Sam was there and we knew him before, it wasn’t a complete change. He’s been doing a really good job. We’re really enjoying that,” she said.
On the field, senior Lara Insko said the new members of the squad are stepping in and meshing with the returners.
“I know we’re missing a lot of our seniors, who we loved to play with so much and played with for years, but we have a lot of incoming underclassmen that I’m really excited about,” she said. “(There is) a lot of talent coming up, and (we’ve seen) a lot of improvement over the summer.”
And even with what they lost, Insko believes the pieces are in place for La Grande to maintain its success without a major regression.
“The passion and energy we had last season has not died out at all,” she said. “We made it so far last season and that was so exciting, (and) we’re not going to drop off. We’re going to continue on. We’re going to come out hard and strong.”
“Another thing I think is really strong (is) we have really hard workers. Our team is working really hard, and it’s because of that passion (from last year),” she said.
Perry and Insko are the lone returning all-league athletes from last fall — Perry a first-team all-GOL member and Insko honorable mention. Gone are first-team standouts Kara Gooderham, Faith Akers, Lexee Gomes, Caiya Chandler and league player of the year Alaina Carson.
But also back from last fall are contributors such as Rachael Keniry, CeCe Aguilera, Audrey Garlitz, Lindsay Adkins, Katie Williams, Lauran Rinker and Josie Bornstedt.
They’re joined by an infusion that is part of the youth program, which Brown said has prepared the younger athletes for the jump to high school.
“They’re able to apply that coming in as freshmen. There’s not a huge transition or gap,” he said.
And while the coach didn’t want to make a prediction, he said the potential is in place for La Grande to be a playoff contender again.
“If that potential is realized, I think we could find ourselves deep in the playoffs again, but there is a long way to go between now and then,” he said.
The Tigers begin play Thursday when they host Pendleton. They open league at home against Baker Sept. 21 and play their final regular-season home game Oct. 2 against Ontario.