Basketball is matchup of the ages

Two coaches, ages 74 and 23, face off with first-year programs

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

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It was a matchup of the ages Monday night at Heritage High School.

Two coaches with more than five decades worth of basketball coaching experience met each other on the court for the first time.

Of course, one coach has 53½ of those years, while another is midway through his first season as a head coach of a high school varsity program.

Skyler Gillispie, a 23-year-old, is learning on the job for Camas High School.

Forbes Lapp, a 74-year-old, still finds himself learning on the job, too; this season with Heritage.

Days before their teams met, Gillispie was looking forward to the evening.

“It will be like looking in the mirror 50 years from now,” Gillispie said. “To see it’s still burning for him, the fire is still burning. He’s gone through a lot of journeys. That’s kind of cool.”

One day, Gillispie hopes to be able to say he has more than 50 years of coaching experience.

“I don’t ever see myself away from the game. I love it,” he said.

Both coaches are struggling this season in terms of wins and losses. Lapp is known for turning around programs. Gillispie expects things to turn around soon — and later. He has goals for this season, and of course, long-term plans for the program.

Lapp said he expects to be at Heritage long term, as well. When he was hired in August, he said he wanted to coach another 15 years.

The key to longevity in the job is not just wins. Lapp has won state championships. He has also been through 3-17 campaigns.

“You gotta love it. Obviously I love it,” Lapp said. “I like kids. I like working with kids. They keep you young.”

Lapp said he has the advantage of having seen it all. The key, though, is to remain open-minded. Not even 74-year-old coaches should be set in their ways.

“There’s always stuff to learn,” he said. “I’m running an offense I just learned three years ago. It really isn’t an offense. It’s a system. It’s read-and-react.”

Lapp has coached at the youth level, junior high, high school, and was a head coach at a junior college and an assistant at a major college — University of Arkansas Little Rock. He won back-to-back state championships with La Center — where he still teaches physical education — in the 1990s.

Most recently, he guided De La Salle North Catholic of Portland to the Oregon state playoffs in three of his four seasons as the head coach.

He believes his coaching experience is continuous, meaning he has been on a bench as a head coach or assistant teaching the game for 54 consecutive basketball seasons.

That is what Gillispie would love to be able to say one day.

Gillispie has a positive attitude despite the unorthodox beginning to his head coaching career. Not only did he take over a program that had graduated 11 of its 12 varsity players from last season’s Class 3A Greater St. Helens League championship team, he also was hired a mere eight days before the first day of practice.

“We’ve been struggling with roles. I had no fall season or summer camps, so I didn’t know what I had,” Gillispie said. “They were trying to feel me out, and I was trying to feel them out, basketball player-wise and personality-wise.

“It’s been fun, though. They’re great kids.”

There have been some players who have left the program, but those personnel changes happen to all coaches at every level. Clearly, it is easier for a veteran coach with a strong résumé to endure a tough season than it is for a rookie. Gillispie, though, has the backing of his administration.

“The kids are working hard and they’ve never quit playing for him,” Camas athletic director Terry Cavender said. “Every head coach gets his first head coaching job somewhere. Regardless of age or experience, when you become a head coach you grow into that job by being in that position. There are a lot of little things you learn how to do just by being in the position.”

Gillispie had been coaching AAU and Select teams as well as the freshmen and junior varsity at Hockinson. He was coaching and training at the Dan Dickau Academy when he interviewed for the vacant position at Camas. He said he wanted to put his best foot forward and gain interview experience.

Cavender was impressed. Not just with the interview, but also with references. More than one head coach in the area gave Gillispie glowing reviews.

Gillispie, a 2007 graduate from Hockinson High School, is working on his Master’s degree at Concordia University in Portland and is working toward becoming a teacher.

“Obviously, I bit off a lot to chew,” Gillispie said in November, just days after he was hired. “I’ve got my hands full. But it was one of those opportunities in life ... you don’t think there’s any way you can pass it up.”

He also said his age could be beneficial to the program.

“There is a lot to be said for the youth,” Gillispie said. “I’m excited about relating to the kids with the energy and passion I bring. I don’t plan on it being a one-year team. I plan on making it my future there.”

Lapp does not have the youth thing going for him anymore. But he, too, expects a long future — this time at Heritage. He is not doing this just for the Timberwolves.

“My wife said if I stop coaching, she is going to divorce me,” Lapp said of Carol, his wife of 40 years.

On Monday night, Gillispie’s Papermakers got the best of Lapp’s Timberwolves 63-60 in a non-league game. The two have different styles on the bench. Gillispie stands for much of the game, giving hand signals and instructions. Lapp prefers to coach while seated on the bench.

Camas improved to 4-8, while Heritage dropped to 1-11.

Lapp, though, sees potential with his program. It might take some time, but he said he is willing to put in the work to make it happen at Heritage.

“They’re good kids,” Lapp said. “They don’t fight with each other. They don’t yell at each other. They yell at me, but that’s OK. I can yell louder than they can. I can handle a team yelling at me. I can’t handle a team yelling at each other.”

Hey, those are more words of advice, aren’t they?

Gillispie acknowledges he can be intense and he certainly is competitive. He is trying to remind himself that one, it is a long season, and two, it can be a long career.

His team, like the coach, is young.

“They’re on the court with guys who have been playing varsity for three years. This is their first time on varsity,” he said. “They’re still a bit overwhelmed as far as the basketball competition. But they’re working their tails off.”

Even with the lack of experience — for the players and the coach — Gillispie is not giving up on this season. The non-league schedule was a time for learning. Now it’s time for competing.

He expects Columbia River and Mountain View to battle for the top two spots in the 3A Greater St. Helens League. The other five teams are chasing down the next three spots for the district tournament. Last week, Camas picked up its first league win under Gillispie.

“Big picture, our goal is to go back to district,” he said.

He believes in his young team and he said they have shown they believe in him.

“They’ve bought into what I’ve taught,” Gillispie said. “They’re hustling and doing everything I’ve asked.”

He already sounds like a veteran coach.

Well, maybe not as veteran as Lapp.

“After 54 years, if you don’t know basketball, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing,” Lapp said with a laugh.