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Jan. 20, 2021

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Martinez: New Columbia River girls basketball coach Jesse Norris knows how to pivot amid pandemic

High school sports

By , Columbian Assistant Sports Editor
Published:

Taking over a high school basketball program in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t part of the plan for Jesse Norris.

Then again, five years ago, neither coaching nor teaching were part of his plan either.

But things change, and you have to adapt.

Earlier this month, Norris was hired as the new girls basketball head coach at Columbia River, taking over from Will Jones, who left to become the new boys coach at Hudson’s Bay.

He’s excited to get started. And more importantly, so are his players. Right after being hired, he sent an email to his players to set up a meet-and-greet over Zoom.

“As soon as I sent it out, I had a couple of kids respond ‘Oh, this is what we’re excited for,’ ” Norris said. “Hopefully, we’ll got to connect in person sooner than later because with basketball, it’s hard to do much by Zoom other than checking in to see what’s going on.”

For Norris, the hiring marks a return to River.

In 2015, the 2006 Mountain View High graduate was a paraeducator at the school, as well as a player on the Portland Reign semi-pro basketball team.

He asked David Long, River’s longtime boys basketball coach, if he could have access to the gym to get in some early-morning workouts. He invited some of River’s players to join him to give him somebody to work against. Those eventually turned into private training sessions with River players like Nate Snook, Naseem Gutierrez and Jacob Hjort, as well as Fort Vancouver’s Jameel Morton.

“I got emersed in the basketball community in Vancouver that way,” Norris said. “I was part of the River thing, even though I wasn’t on the (basketball) staff. It went from getting workouts with guys for selfish reasons, to developing these younger guys and watching their careers flourish.”

During the summer of 2017, he was approached by Washougal girls basketball coach Brittney Ervin, another Mountain View graduate from the class of 2006, to join her program. Norris was skeptical at first.

“I just didn’t think coaching was for me,” Norris said. “But then Brittney came to me in 2017 and said ‘hey I need a coach out at Washougal.’ And I was like ‘Ahh, I don’t know.’ She said ‘just come to one summer workout and meet everybody and see what you think.’

“And I went and just the girls’ enthusiasm for the game … they were just so willing to learn. I had fun at the workout. So I said ‘OK I’m going to do this. Try it out for a year and see how it goes.’ And I loved it.”

That started a two-year stint as Washougal’s JV girls coach that culminated with assisting on the Panthers’ varsity team that won the Class 2A state championship in 2019.

A stint coaching a summer AAU boys team that included some Ridgefield players led Norris to join Jason Buffum’s staff at Ridgefield as the boys JV coach last season.

Three years of coaching then Norris to consider a career in teaching.

“After coaching at Washougal, I was like ‘Dang, this is good making a difference in these kids’ live. I think I can teach,’ ” said Norris, who worked as mortgage broker after leaving River. “And Britney helped get me into a teaching program, really kind of help me get in this direction. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be coaching. I wouldn’t be teaching. I’d just be running workouts.”

Norris started in September as the Structured Learning Classroom (SLC) teacher at Kelso High School, working with students with behavioral issues.

“It makes me be better coach,” Norris said. “(The students are) trying to manipulate me, but they’re also learning from me. I’m learning from them. It makes your mind work a little different. Some of that stuff comes into play when I’m running practices.”

Norris said he appreciated the groundwork that Jones laid in his three seasons as River’s girls coach. Norris saw it firsthand whenever his Washougal team battled River.

That and the ability to reconnect with people at River is what drew him to return.

“Once people starting hearing that I might get the job, I had kids reaching out to me,” Norris said. “Ari Kuschner, Sami Myers _ they seem like really good leaders. I know River lost a lot of talent — five seniors and four main contributors. But the culture is what you want. The players are awesome, but if you have that culture — you’ve got the growth mindset — you can really do a lot. I was really thrilled to see that.”

Norris hopes to start workouts with his players soon, even if those workouts have to be held outdoors because of COVID-19 restrictions. He says he’s been holding private training sessions outdoors with players throughout Southwest Washington this fall.

“I think it builds toughness,” Norris said. “I grew up and played with all three Raivios at Mountain View – Derek, Nik and Matt. We’d play at Ellsworth Elementary all the time (in the winter) with gloves on. Kids nowadays they’re so used to be able to get into a gym, have a trainer. We didn’t have a trainer. … We’d leave a rock in the gym door at Mountain View every once in a while. You had to find a way to workout.”

For Norris, it’s all about adapting to change.

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