Change is a good thing for Kenai's Beeson

Just one of the girls

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

He was stuck in a rut and needed something fresh. He was tired of boys turning up ineligible. He knew the girls had more talent. He didn't want to coach the same boys in basketball that he had in football.

Ask anybody, even his wife, about why coach Jim Beeson left the Kenai Central boys basketball team for the girls squad prior to the season, and one of the above reasons will inevitably appear.

But ask Beeson, and you'll hear something entirely different.

"I think the big reason for the changeover was it was something I really wanted to do to get my family more involved," said Beeson, a father of four. "Basketball is basketball, whether you're coaching boys or girls.

"I put a great deal of effort and time into coaching. This was a way to have my family around the thing I enjoy putting time and energy into."

Turns out everybody was looking at Jim Beeson the coach while searching for the reason for his switch. All along, they should have been looking at Beeson as family man.

"No, frankly," said Beeson's wife of 12 years, Jill, when asked if she knew of her husband's family intentions. "I sure appreciate him doing that, because I have ended up being a lot more involved this year.

"I thought he was just looking for a change. I think he kind of was in a rut."

When word started getting around last spring that Beeson, known for expressive ranting and raving on the sideline, would be coaching girls basketball this season, more than just a few lips curled up with the thought.

How would the girls react to one of the coach's fiery tirades in a sideline huddle? Would Beeson know what to do when one of the girls cried?

It turns out Beeson had a side to him -- a side not seen on the football or boys basketball sidelines -- that would answer those questions.

"I love seeing his sweet side," Jill said. "His father figure really comes out when he is coaching the girls. He deals a lot differently with the girls than he does the boys.

"It's very endearing."

After Thursday's 51-30 victory over Kodiak made Kenai the only peninsula team to reach the semifinals of the Region III/4A girls basketball tourney, all indications are the mix of Beeson and the girls has been a good one.

But for Beeson making the change was anything but a no-brainer.

"This, more than anything else, hands down, was the toughest decision I've had to make in my professional career," said Beeson of ending his eight-year tenure as the boys basketball head man.

Beeson had to come to terms with telling people like senior Willie Castillo, who had been on varsity since he was a freshman, that he was leaving.

"I didn't really like it," Castillo said. "I had him for all of those years. He's been like a big brother to me.

"I wanted to spend my senior year with Bees."

Castillo's alliance with Beeson is understandable. Beeson is the type of coach that has players over for dinner, even ex-players home from college on Christmas break.

"Jim's one of the finest coaches we've had at the school in any sport," said Cliff Massie.

The middle name of one of Beeson's sons is Cliff in honor of Massie. He served as Beeson's basketball assistant for six years and coached at Kenai for 20 years prior to that.

"He's always having kids over for dinner, or they'd just come over to his house on a Saturday night," Massie continued. "I've always been impressed with how much he loves to coach, and how much he loves being around high school kids."

With such strong bonds in place, Beeson agonized over the decision. However, the more Beeson thought about the change, the more his wife became excited by it.

"(Assistant coach Ken Felchle) told me, and my wife must have told me a 100 times, that somebody else would come along for the boys," Beeson said. "Somebody would come along, and they'd be just fine."

When it became apparent that longtime girls coach Craig Jung would step down, Beeson agreed to make the switch. Even though he was an assistant when Jung coached Kenai to the state title in 1991, Beeson still had a lot to learn about coaching girls.

Cory Hershberger, the senior leader of the Kards whose brother, Casey, had played for Beeson, admits there was some uneasiness before Beeson's first major coaching act, a team trip to the state of Washington from mid-June to early July.

"I didn't know him really good before that," Hershberger said. "After our trip to Washington, he was just one of the girls."

Jill served as a female chaperone on the trip and Beeson's decision to change to the girls began paying its desired dividends.

"This team is just so special," Jill said. "They're a great group of girls and we've had an awesome time this year. I was involved with the boys, but this was a whole new level from the get-go."

There would still be hurdles to overcome once the season started, such as the first day a girl started crying in practice, leaving Beeson and Felchle shrugging their shoulders.

"We both looked at each other like, 'Now what do we do? They didn't teach us this,'" Beeson said.

Jill said her husband came home still puzzled over the incident. He told his wife he couldn't figure out why the girl had kept crying when the physical hurt from the injury had long since passed.

"I told him all she probably needed was you to tell her she was OK and give her a big hug," Jill said. "It wasn't physical pain, it was emotional pain. It was just a girl thing.

"He's figuring out. There's a running joke now between the girls about who has cried and who hasn't. I think there's about two that haven't."

But Beeson didn't turn into a total softy. He continued to set the demanding pace he set from the beginning for the girls.

"When I sat down with them at the beginning, I told them my expectations would be the same as if I was coaching the boys," Beeson said. "They said, 'Good, that's what we want.'

"That made them feel good that this wasn't a step down for us."

Beeson said he has worked to be more sensitive with his yelling. Hershberger says he doesn't yell, but merely "raises his voice." Either way, the energy he puts into his team is apparent, especially on the defensive end.

"They're just like piranhas when they create a loose ball on defense," said Soldotna coach Rob Dimick. "I think a lot of that comes from the way he coaches."

Another pleasant surprise for Beeson has come in the ways the girls pick up what he teaches.

"It's easier to teach the girls than it is the boys," the coach said. "They don't watch TV, so they don't think they know a lot. They want to please you."

Hindsight is always 20-20, and looking back Beeson said everything has turned out rosy for the boys and girls. Hershberger said some of the boys were originally angry at Beeson, but added the situation is now one both genders are comfortable with.

"They tease us sometimes because we run more than they do," the senior said. "But we tease them because we win more games than they do."

Under new coach Rich Bartolowits, the boys went 1-9 in the region, but were consistently competitive. Thursday, they stuck with No. 1 seed Colony before succumbing 79-61.

"I had a friend who told me before the season he didn't think we would win a game," Bartolowits said. "Nobody expected us to even be competitive.

"This team has come so far this year it's amazing."

Regardless of what happens at regions and state, a watershed moment should come at the Kenai basketball banquet this year. Jill has told Jim she would like to take the unprecedented step of saying a few words to the boys and girls, a sign that all are one big, happy family.

"I told him I wanted to say something at the banquet, and he was like, 'What? You've never done that before,'" Jill said. "This has just been such a great group of kids, not only the girls, but the boys, too."

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