Romans Empire: Nikiski girls hoops coach steps down after 20 seasons, 8 titles

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

"She was money."

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Nikiski girls basketball coach Ward Romans talks to his team earlier this year. The longtime Bulldogs coach has stepped down after winning eight Class 3A state championships.

Ward Romans would typically have been enthusiastically referring to one of the hundreds of girls he helped mold into basketball players and upstanding citizens over the past 20 years as coach of the Nikiski basketball team.

Not this time, though.

Rather, he was referencing an older woman, one who shaped who he would eventually become both on and off the court.

Her name is Judy. She was his starting pitcher, his ace. She is his mother.

"You have that epiphany that I'm out here standing here as a 16-year old with my mom and all of her friends and it seemed surreal," Romans said of his first head-coaching position, guiding a group of 36-and-older women into battle on the summer softball circuit in Fairbanks. "This is a lady that can ground me."

From penciling in the daily lineups to shagging fly balls and even conferencing with his mom on the mound when she was in a jam, Romans learned the skills necessary to become a leader.

"That's really when I knew that I wanted to coach," he said. "At the end of that summer, I said this is something I could really enjoy doing."

Talk about foresight.

Thirty years, 12 Southcentral Conference basketball crowns and eight Alaska Class 3A state basketball championships later, Romans is officially hanging up his whistle, ending a memorable two-decade tenure as coach of the Bulldogs in hopes of spending more time with his family.

With a record of 411-125, Romans, 46, steps down as the architect behind a Nikiski program that became the state's standard for success, having qualified for 17 straight state tournaments and 18 overall, including this past season when the Bulldogs took fifth.

His 21 years of sculpting impressionable minds in the classroom as a middle school social studies teacher will travel with him, too, as he recently retired from public education with plans of moving to Anchorage with his family after his wife, Denise, accepted a job in the city.

"I've been blessed," Romans said. "I've been fortunate to be the caretaker of this program for the last 20 years. I count my blessings. Lots of really special relationships."

It all began, however, with that fateful group of slow-pitch-loving women, a squad Romans would coach for four years and lead to at least one Geritol League title before venturing off to college.

That experience taught him more than just the values of coaching, though.

"That is where I really learned the blessing of faith," he said. "Those ladies really believed that we could really do this.

"I really feel like I've been called by God to be a teacher and a coach."

When his team won it all, Romans' future unfolded before his eyes.

"What a powerful thing it was to watch them celebrate and them to look at me like, 'Thank you and it was fun that you coached us,'" he recalled. "And something clicked inside of me and said this is what I really want to do."

Not built in a day

Romans had never even heard of Nikiski.

Growing up in Fairbanks, where he attended Lathrop High School, spending four seasons on the gridiron as a fullback and linebacker as well as earning a 185-pound state wrestling championship as a senior, Romans returned home after graduating from Northern Arizona University, along with his wife, his high school sweetheart who was two years behind him at Lathrop.

Nikiski High School had yet to open in the summer of 1988 when Romans' phone rang, a voice on the other end inviting him to an unfamiliar place to teach and coach.

Romans, who had been serving as assistant football coach and wrestling coach at North Pole High School at the time, considered himself lucky.

"Breaking into the school system back then was incredibly hard in Alaska," he said. "We were the highest-paying state in the United States as far as pay scale and the peninsula always had a reputation of quality education."

He and Denise hopped in the car, drove through the night, rented a hotel room and showered all prior to a 9 a.m. interview.

By 10 a.m. he was offered the job.

"I was told I was the third person hired in the building and I've been here ever since," Romans said. "I felt very fortunate to break into the system."

Little did the school know what they'd be getting. And vice versa.

As Romans recalls it, Denise had just secured a valuable accounting job in Fairbanks when she sacrificed everything to move more than 500 miles south.

Coming full circle, he's now returning the favor.

"That's going to be a direct correlation to any success I've had as a coach," Romans said. "Any time I've put in as a coach, she was there with me or supporting everything I do."

Romans, who hasn't played competitive basketball since middle school, as he followed in his older brother Wade's footsteps on the wrestling mat in high school, spent his first year at Nikiski as the Bulldogs' football and wrestling coach.

After John Andrews led the girls basketball team to a 2-18 mark in the program's first season, Romans inherited the reins, including that of athletic director, and never looked back.

Well, perhaps once.

In his first game, with Denise by his side as his assistant coach, Romans notched a home victory over Seldovia.

"I'll tell you what I told Denise, I said, 'This is going to be so much fun.'"

The very next day, two-time defending Class 3A state champion Homer brought Romans back down to earth, demolishing the Bulldogs, 82-15.

"We never crossed half court in the first half," he casually said as if it happened yesterday. "I don't have a clue what I'm doing."

That lopsided loss, which Romans remembers vividly, laid the foundation for what would eventually become a blueprint for success.

A helping hand

Dave Cloud is one of the classiest men that Romans has ever met.

The Mariners' coach had just led an assault on Romans and his team and here he is, volunteering his time to talk shop with the rookie.

"After the game I felt terrible. I coached terrible. I know I didn't help the girls that day," Romans said of the blowout. "Thank goodness I don't have a film of it."

Cloud eased his concerns.

"He just was very encouraging to me and very helpful and it was a really neat moment for me and I'll remember forever."

At the time, Romans said, Homer was a noble team full of bright students who gave it their all each and every time on the court.

Sound familiar?

"It wasn't an accident that I tried to model our program after Homer's in that way," Romans said. "They played as hard as any team I've ever coached against in 20 years. They were the standard."

Nikiski eventually would inherit that role. But it took time.

The Bulldogs finished 8-15 in Romans' first season, the only losing campaign on the coach's watch, and failed to qualify for state, just the second time a Romans-coached team didn't make it, the other being 2008.

"It says I had great assistant coaches. I've had three assistant coaches in 20 years. They all had skills that if they wanted to be head coaches for sure," he said. "Each year our goal was to become the best that we could be and to do it in such a way to reflect the teams before in a positive light."

In his second year at the helm, Romans guided Nikiski to a 14-13 record and its first state-tournament appearance, during which the Bulldogs took fourth.

"We beat Seward in their gym to go to state and that was one of the biggest steps this program has ever taken," Romans said.

But that was just a taste.

The main course was still in the oven.

"I didn't have it mapped out, but there were a lot of hungry girls. It was a neat time," Romans said of entering his fourth season. "There were a good chunk of girls coming back and they were very excited about coming back. It was a great group."

The Bulldogs went 21-6 in 1992, one of 16 20-win seasons with Romans on the bench, and won the school's first state championship at Soldotna High School. They followed that with another state crown on the Stars' home floor the next season.

"It was pretty special," Romans said of the first two. "We had a home crowd for the most part. It was really a neat experience to see fans running on the court."

Romans said he never entered a season thinking his team would win a state title, yet he knew what it would take to accomplish such a feat.

"He had a tremendous vision for whatever he wanted to have happen at the beginning of each season," said Vern Kornstad, a Nikiski middle school teacher and Romans' assistant coach for 10 seasons. "He could see what the loss was with graduation and what would need to be shored up, filled in, changed, depending on whatever anybody else was doing or what the competition was.

"He's well-researched. He knew what the other teams were going to do and had an idea of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to get her done," he added. "He could sell that vision."

Nikiski came close to mirroring Homer's run of three straight 3A titles, but finished second in 1994.

Not to worry, though.

The Bulldogs went on to capture state crowns in 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2003 and their latest in 2006, capping a shimmering stretch of eight state championships in 15 years and an 8-1 record in state-title games.

"I do believe that there was a confidence because of all the work that these girls put in," Romans said of past teams. "I know that once we got to the state-title game, I know there was a confidence there that helped us."

Romans -- who also cited his younger brother, Pat, once the head football coach at Lathrop, as another source of coaching inspiration -- wouldn't comment on whether the championships would have flowed as freely without him on the bench.

Kornstad, now Romans' best friend, has other ideas.

"The kids would buy in. If he doesn't sell the vision, there's nothing to buy into," he said. "It definitely is kind of a two-way street in my opinion."

Only time will tell.

"The girls would have been here. We were really blessed," Romans said. "We've had some incredible athletes come through this school. ... I think once we had some early success, there was a roller effect where the kids and the community got excited about that. In some ways, some years there's been pressure to maintain that excellence for a long period of time and it is not an easy thing to do.

"I've enjoyed it. It's exciting and fun to see how good we can get."

Alaska's finest

The third word out of Sarah Herrin's mouth was 'blessed.'

While Romans felt privileged to have been a part of his player's lives, Herrin felt likewise about her former coach.

"Those four years, he doesn't just teach basketball, he teaches about life in general," she said. "I think players take a lot from him going onto life after basketball and after school."

She certainly did.

Having seen playing time her freshman season at Nikiski, something Romans dubbed as atypical, Herrin was part of the 2003 state-title team, learning quickly on the fly what it felt like to be a champion.

"My freshman year it was a big eye-opener," she said. "Being a freshman, I didn't always know what to expect."

She did her senior year, though, when Nikiski went 25-3, one of the program's best records, and won its last state crown with Herrin, named Class 3A player of the year, leading the way.

After playing two seasons of basketball at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Herrin transferred to the University of Alaska Anchorage, redshirted this past season and plans on taking advantage of her final two years of college eligibility in a Seawolves' uniform.

For that, she credits Romans.

"He brings the best out of you," Herrin said. "I think without him, I wouldn't be where I am today playing college basketball.

"He's the best coach, I think, that has ever come across the peninsula."

Herrin quickly corrected herself.

"Not in the area," she added. "In the state."

Romans was named Anchorage Daily News/Alaska Media Coach of the Year five times, including twice during Herrin's tenure.

"I couldn't have been so successful without him and my teammates. He brings the best out of you," she said. "We were just a product of him. Whatever he tells us to do we do."

Kornstad shared a similar allegiance.

He was a decade removed from coaching when he offered to help Romans, who in turn asked him to become his assistant coach.

"We had an awesome time," said Kornstad, who coached the Nikiski boys this past season. "He was a genius and I would just go around him, filled in whatever gaps he wanted filled in."

Over the ensuing 10 years, countless road trips and six state crowns, the duo would become like family.

"Our lives were really intersecting at that point," said Kornstad, whose classroom was across from Romans'. "With him retiring, I'm trying not to even think about it. I'll deal with it next year.

"There's not a more tender heart on the sidelines. He's just loud," he laughed. "For Ward, it was always about family."

Your way or the highway

Romans never made his players attend. It was purely voluntary.

But Herrin credits open-gym time in the summer as a primary reason for Nikiski's perennial success.

"We always joke around, there is no offseason. You're always going," she said. "If you want to make yourself better, there's always something to work on and that's what he stresses a lot."

When one season ended, another was just beginning.

"You take a little bit of time and get right back and excited and preparing for the next opportunity that this upcoming team has," Romans said. "I've done it for 20 years, it's the only way I know how.

"I don't know how anyone else does it in any other program. I know it's been successful for us."

Once a week, twice a week, whatever it was, open gyms obviously helped.

"It's up to what they want to do," he said. "They don't have to ask me twice."

But the time required to attain this towering level of success is ultimately what caused him to step down.

"It always comes down to that," Romans said. "The time commitment, the travel, the fundraising, all the duties that come with being the head of the program, it can be tiring, it really can."

Herrin understands.

"He's dedicated himself so much to the program," she said. "Basketball's a fairly long season and having that time in the summer for open gyms, he's always away from his family helping us. That just shows right there how much he's dedicated and committed to us. That's very special."

Kornstad, who learned how to run a practice and many other detail-oriented skills from the man he calls his "organizational mentor," saw firsthand the wheels turning in Romans' head.

"He could keep an amazing amount of information in his mind," he explained. "I never read the paper. I just got all the scores from him, who scored what, he'd just keep it all in his mind."

His family, friends and the relationships he developed over the past 20 years were what kept Romans roaming the sidelines.

From the support of his wife, to his eldest daughter Rachel, 18, helping with the team in her younger days before playing on it and graduating this past month, to his youngest daughter Brittany, 12, also assisting the team, Romans felt at home on the Nikiski hardwood. It was difficult not to.

"The only reason I could have stayed in as long as I have was because my family has been involved," he said. "Next to my faith in God, they're the next priority in my life. If Denise had ever said that I was spending too much time away from my family or not being able to follow my own girls, Brittany and Rachel, I would have stepped down."

In the end, it was his own decision. But clearly not an easy one.

Having stepped down once before in April 1999 before reflecting on his choice and rejoining the team, eventually claiming four more state titles in the process, Romans wanted to be confident in his actions this time around.

"After every season I'm tired, I'll be honest," he said. "I wanted to make sure it wasn't that I was just tired."

He was drained, but it was more. It was just time.

Informing his players wasn't easy, either, especially the juniors expecting him to be there for their senior seasons.

"The hardest part about stepping down is ... I feel like I'm letting people down," said Romans, a man at ease with his decision, yet uncertain of his legacy. "I don't want to live in the past and I can't look too far ahead in the future, or you miss what's going on right now."

His body of work speaks for itself.

"It's a legacy of enthusiasm. He's just 100 percent into whatever he's doing. It's a legacy of hard work. A legacy of caring," Kornstad said. "I hate even saying it in past tense, but it was intense. What he's into, he's into completely."

Family tree

Whoever takes over for Romans has big shoes to fill.

There's little doubt, however, that his unwavering philosophy of strong defense, rebounding and effort will carry on for years to come.

"There's great kids coming back. I know the administration will do a great job to take the program over," Romans said. "I see positives for the program, I do."

He couldn't select a favorite moment from his coaching career, instead choosing to talk of his many players' achievements, a sign of what players and coaches call his unselfish and humble nature.

"When people think about coaching over this long span it's easy to pick out those state championship years as being special, but every year there was something -- kids growing or kids working though something and me being able to be a part of it," he said. "That's what's fun about it, watching these kids grow from their freshmen year until they're a senior and then watching the teams grow along with them."

Influencing families such as the Berdahls (Annie, Laura and Tammy), the Glazes (Mary, Sally, Lindsy), the Carlsons (Charise, Becca and Lacey), and obviously the Kornstads (Wende, Angie), and all state-selections from Karen Rabung, player of the year in 2003, to Herrin, Romans learned a lot about himself in the process.

And so did everybody else.

"It was a lot more than just basketball," Kornstad said of serving as his assistant. "It was a way of life, a way of living, being connected in a family sort of structure. This is what you do and then you get the privilege of playing ball games together.

"I don't know that (Wende) would have ever played college basketball if it hadn't been for him," he added of one of his daughters, who played collegiately at two different schools.

Lives may have been changed, careers altered or paths chosen differently had Romans and his wife not taken a giant leap of faith to a small, tight-knit community on the Kenai Peninsula.

"We've talked about that many times," said Romans, who will seek a teaching job in Anchorage in private education. "We knew that it was God's plan that we came down here. It's been a great community to raise a family in.

"It was a good thing for sure that we moved down here. We know that now, we didn't know that at the time."

He's hoping leaving the area brings as much, if not more, happiness. And not just to him.

"What I'll miss the most stepping away from coaching is the teaching, the practices. It's family. It's intimate," Romans said. "You have the opportunity to teach and instruct and watch girls grow and fail and be successful. It's special.

"You can build family relationships. For four years I get the opportunity to work with these girls in an arena where they're volunteering their time to come. It makes it special."

He's still here. But Romans is already being missed.

"I'm just enjoying every chat, every visit, every moment we have left together," Kornstad said. "But I'm just trying not to think about next year yet."

Nobody in Nikiski is.

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