Al Aldridge had been dreading this day for years.
He did not know when it would happen, but he knew one day he would resign, walk away as the head coaching of the Prairie girls basketball team.
After 32 seasons, 710 wins, six state championships, that day was Tuesday.
Aldridge said he is taking over the Clark College women’s program. The college has scheduled a luncheon Wednesday to announce the hiring.
Before any of that, Aldridge had to say goodbye to Prairie.
He called his players in for a 10:45 a.m. meeting. It was short. He told them he was leaving, taking an opportunity to coach college basketball.
“I enjoyed 32 great years here at Prairie High School coaching this basketball program. I’ve dedicated pretty much my entire life to this basketball program,” he said.
His players sat on the bleachers, silent, stunned. Some jaws dropped.
Aldridge called it the toughest decision of his life. He then quickly slipped out of the gym.
“I didn’t want to be an emotional wreck in front of my kids,” he would say later.
Soon after his exit, many players did cry.
“I could feel what he was going through. I could tell he was torn up,” senior Kelsey Asplund said.
“I have so much to thank Al for — for what he has done for me,” junior Megan Lindsley said. “He made me such a better player.”
This year’s Falcons won the program’s sixth state championship.
He finished 710-134, an .841 winning percentage. The program has had 27 consecutive winning seasons, 16 consecutive league titles, and 15 district titles in the past 16 seasons. The Falcons also went more than 10 years — from January 2000 to February 2010 — without losing to another Clark County team.
“I’ve enjoyed lots and lots of really great kids and lots of supportive families,” Aldridge said.
Just a few months ago, when Aldridge was celebrating his 700th victory, he said his goal was to win seven state titles before leaving Prairie.
The Falcons went 27-1 this season and claimed the Class 3A state title. He said he believes next season’s team will have an opportunity to repeat, to get No. 7 for the program.
But it will be without him.
“The (Clark) opportunity is now. It’s not two years from now or three years from now. It’s now. That’s kind of why,” Aldridge said of his decision.
Aldridge will replace Nancy Boone, who resigned after six seasons at Clark College.
“It was an opportunity for a change and to try something different before I’m so old I can’t,” Aldridge, 61, said. “A new challenge and opportunity.”
Travis Drake, Prairie’s athletic director, said he understands why Aldridge is leaving.
“Al talked to me and let me know it was a potential opportunity,” Drake said. “I told him he has accomplished a lot at Prairie.
What else would there be to accomplish at Prairie? The guy is motivated by challenges. Going to Clark will be a huge challenge for him.”
Drake said he did not try to change Aldridge’s mind.
“He knows he’s wanted and valued at Prairie,” Drake said. “He’ll be missed. This is a huge loss for Prairie.”
As the AD, Drake said his immediate concern is for the well-being of the program and to look out for the best interest of current and future players. He understands it will be an enormous task, trying to find somebody to take the place of a legend.
“Until we get a face, a name, a personality in that position, I think there’s going to be a lot of anxiety,” Drake said.
“I hope the person who takes over keeps the tradition alive,” Aldridge said. “Keeps it moving forward.”
This will not be the first attempt at college coaching for Aldridge, who started the Prairie girls basketball program when the school opened its doors in the fall of 1979. He left Prairie for one season — 1990-91 — to start the program at Portland Community College.
Aldridge said one cannot compare the old PCC job to the position at Clark. At PCC, there was no budget, no athletic director, and no athletes for a team. Aldridge was hired in August and had virtually no time to assemble a squad.
At Clark, he already has his first recruiting trip planned. He is scheduled to travel to Alaska on Thursday.
No matter how his teams fare at Clark, nothing will take away from his time at Prairie.
For 26 years, he also led the school’s award-winning band and was the head coach of the softball team.
“It was all encompassing for me personally,” Aldridge said. “It was everything I did.”
Basketball is where he left his mark.
“I’ve got a lot of wonderful memories. It’s been my whole life.”