As Evergreen boys basketball players convened on the court in practice gear on a Friday afternoon two weeks ago, head coach Brett Henry opened with some news.
It was the end of a grading period, which in the past might have spelled bad news for some of the players.
But this time was different.
Henry announced that a senior who had been previously ineligible due to grades was now eligible. The team erupted in cheers.
Henry, a first-year coach with the program, has placed a special emphasis on school work for his Plainsmen, and has made grades one of his top priorities.
For a team that has struggled getting everyone academically eligible in past years, it’s been commonplace this season for the teammates to encourage each other in the classroom.
“I made it a priority that discipline was going to be key and you can’t just do it on the floor, you have to do it in life. For these kids, school is their life,” Henry said. “In order to see the success we wanted to see on the court, we had to preach it everywhere.”
According to the players, the structure in the classroom is working.
“The energy is way different this season,” senior X’Zayvier Washington said. “It’s more positive. People know what they can do and can’t do. It’s more like rules set. We talk about grades and classes. Coach checks our grades and attendance every day, so everyone makes it a priority to get to class, do their work.”
At least three varsity players missed the entire last season due to grades — including Washington. For others, Henry said, grades kept them out during spurts of the season.
As of now all 39 boys in the program — varsity, JV and C-team — are eligible.
After Henry, who had assistant coaching stops at Lincoln of Portland and Lakeridge of Lake Oswego, became interested in the Evergreen job, he knew little about the area. So he started reaching out to friends to learn about the program.
“All the feedback I got was they lacked discipline,” Henry said. “You might count on kids most of the year, then playoff time they’re ineligible. Over and over it came up. I understand every community has their challenges, but that doesn’t mean we can’t demand more.”
Henry told the team his high demands when it came to academics from the beginning. He’d check grades weekly. He’d text players individually to build trust.
“I’m not singling a guy out in front of the whole group (over grades),” he said. “It’s a trust that I’ve built over the last four months.”
When coaches sat Washington down last season to tell him he couldn’t play, he had tears running down his face.
Washington, one of the team’s featured guards this season, said his grades have seen massive improvement. He credits the support system around him for helping motivate him.
“(Before) it was just ‘get your grades up if you want to play basketball,’ but with no action,” he said. “Now they’re walking me through the process as well. He checks in with me regularly and I check in with him regularly. At least once a week, I’ll send him progress of my grades, whether they went up or down — they never go down.”
Washington said grades were checked every couple months in past years. But Henry checks his players’ grades weekly — sometimes daily — and monitors unexcused absences from class. Before tryouts, players said Henry told them he wouldn’t tolerate bad grades. They didn’t know to what level.
While the WIAA mandates players hold above a 2.0 grade-point average and no more than one failing grade, Henry takes it a step further. Instead of waiting for grading periods to demote a player to street clothes on game day, he watches grades at all times.
Unexcused attendances are punished by running lines. Last week, Henry said, he didn’t even bring the basketballs out for practice. Recently, the stakes have been raised. If a player picks up an unexcused absence in a class, the entire team will run — except the player who missed the class, who has to sit on the sidelines and watch his teammates run.
The strict rule seems to work, too.
“Nobody’s done that yet,” senior Jeremy Harju said. “He’s serious when it comes to that.”
Said Washington: “As teammates we all know that you’d never (want to) be that guy, so everyone gets to class.”
Simply put: The team knows not to skip class.
Senior guard Michael Cabrera said the team is working hard to break perceptions about the team and the school.
“I think that was perfect for us,” he said. “We’re known for … not doing good in school.”
It seems the change of coaching style — and hands on approach to grades — has been positive for the Plainsmen. Players cite a better energy around the team and less finger-pointing.
“If I can help these kids graduate and try to go to college, that’s great, we don’t have to win out there,” Henry said.