Gabriel Sr., Bartolowits decide to step down

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

As the prep season winds down for 2003-04, head coaches have already made resignations that will help shape the 2004-05 prep season.

Seward and Kenai Central both had a couple of significant resignations. At Kenai Central, Brian Gabriel Sr. will not return for an eighth season as the head hockey coach and Rich Bartolowits will not return for a sixth season as the head basketball coach.

At Seward, Cliff Draper retires after 26 seasons of coaching sports at the school. Draper has coached pretty much everything at Seward, but this year he coached football and track and field. Athletic director and cross-country ski coach Rich Houghton will be leaving after 15 years as the cross-country coach.

At Skyview, Phil Sheridan will be the third head football coach in three years after Ty Salness left the post after one year on the job.

Also, Beth Ladd is leaving after one year as the Nikiski cross country coach and Elliot Jackson will not be back after one year as the Homer hockey coach.

Cook Inlet Academy will be losing head basketball coach Max Vavilov and head volleyball coach Nikki Munn. Both had spent two seasons at the school.

Finally, Ninilchik will not have head boys basketball coach Chris Hanson returning.

With the exception of the Skyview football position, most of these coaching positions are not filled yet. That's because activities are currently not in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's budget for next year.

"Until the board puts activities back in, we're not allowed to advertise," said Tim Delaney, the athletic director at Kenai Central.

In mid-May, the state added $82 million to state education funding, which could add about $7 million to the school district's cash-strapped 2004-05 budget.

The school board will meet on June 7. Cocurricular programs are among the things that could get added to the 2004-05 budget thanks to the extra $7 million.

The following is a closer look at some of the longer-serving coaches that will not be returning and at new Skyview coach Sheridan:

Brian Gabriel Sr., Kenai Central hockey

After taking the program to new heights, Gabriel decided it's time for a break. Gabriel had been coaching some form of hockey for 16 straight years.

He said the grind of having to adjust his work schedule is tough. Also, Brian Gabriel Jr. will be playing hockey at Holy Cross next season. Gabriel Sr. is looking forward to watching his son perform.

If the new Kenai Central coach agrees, Gabriel would like to remain involved in the program. His daughter, Branda, is a junior at Kenai Central and still involved in the program.

"The reason I didn't make the decision until May is I kept putting it off and putting it off," Gabriel said. "I have mixed emotions. It was a heart-wrenching decision."

Gabriel said his players were the factor that made his decision to leave the hardest.

"I did enjoy the kids my whole time coaching," Gabriel said. "I'll have kids I coached seven years ago come over to the house or call me up and talk.

"That's a neat thing to be able to have."

Another factor is that Gabriel said the program is nearing the point where it can reach what he calls the Holy Grail winning the state hockey championship.

In 1997, Gabriel's first season at Kenai, the Kardinals had just 16 players go out for the team. Four or five of those players had never even played hockey before.

That year, Gabriel installed the philosophy that would shape the program. Gabriel wanted the athletes to have fun, because he felt that led to a winning environment.

He started attracting more players to the program and built it to the point where at least 40 players was the norm. In 2001, the Kardinals made their first trip to the state tournament. In 2003, Kenai won its first North Star Conference Tournament and picked up its first win at state en route to a sixth-place finish.

Last season, the Kardinals won their first regular season North Star crown. They also repeated as champs of the North Star tournament and earned another sixth-place finish at state.

"The one thing that I feel good about is that the kids were bummed out that I was leaving," Gabriel said. "If they wouldn't have been, that would have meant I tickled everybody's funny bone by leaving. That wouldn't have been a good thing."

Rich Bartolowits, Kenai Central boys basketball

After coaching the C team for two years, Bartolowits took over when Jim Beeson went from the head coach of the boys program to head coach of the girls program in 1999.

By the 2001-02 season, Bartolowits had built a team that won Region III's Southern Division and took second in the Region III Tournament. At state, Kenai lost its only two games but threw a scare into eventual state champion Bartlett in the tournament's first round.

The following season, the Kardinals won another Southern Division title but did not advance to state.

Bartolowits said he decided to step down because he is starting a business and does not have enough free time left to be the head coach.

"I'm certainly going to miss working with the kids," Bartolowits said. "That's the neat thing about the job.

"Some of the headaches, I won't miss. I'm not ruling out being involved in the program if it works out."

Bartolowits also will keep teaching computers at Kenai Central.

Phil Sheridan, Skyview football coach

It is now Sheridan's turn to see if he can wake up the sleeping giant that is Skyview football. Skyview is the largest school on the peninsula, yet it has watched in recent years as Kenai Central, Soldotna and Nikiski have all taken turns atop the Kenai Peninsula football heap.

"I'm pretty excited," said Sheridan, who has been an assistant at Skyview for four years. "I think Skyview's always had the kids, but they've never really advanced at the varsity level.

"My main goal is to take the kids who succeed when they're younger and have them succeed as juniors and seniors."

Sheridan said three coaches in three years is not a healthy situation for the Skyview program. He said he hopes to offset that disadvantage with the fact that he already is familiar with most of the kids in the program.

Sheridan also is excited about his coaching staff. He keeps Dave Brown and Neldon Gardner, the architect of Skyview's top-notch wrestling program.

He also adds Dan Bohrnsen to the mix. Bohrnsen culminated a six-year run as Seward's head coach in 2001 by leading the Seahawks to the small-schools state championship game and earning small-schools coach of the year honors in the process.

Bohrnsen earned a reputation for getting a gritty defensive and smart offensive effort out of the small number of players he got out at Seward each year.

Sheridan called being a head coach a year-round job. He said the program has already made big strides because the booster club has raised a lot of money, which should mean better gear for the players.

"We're going to be really young, but we've got phenomenal young kids," Sheridan said. "I've also recruited some kids that should have been playing that didn't play in the past."

Cliff Draper, Seward football and track and field

With 26 years of service, Draper, also a teacher at Seward Elementary School, retires as Seward's longest tenured coach ever.

At one level or another, Draper has coached pretty much every sport at Seward, although his focus in recent years has been football and track and field. He said the one thing he has not coached is cheerleading.

"I've done all I can do for the kids here," Draper said. "I've had some of the grandchildren of some of the children I had years ago.

"When you start getting grandchildren, it's the kind of deal where maybe you should probably try to find something else to do."

While Draper will be retired from both coaching and teaching, he said he plans to stay in Seward unless the educational system gets really bad. His daughter goes into the sixth grade this year.

"I hope I helped a lot of kids along the way," Draper said. "I met a lot of good people along the way. I'm happy with both of those things.

"I'm happy to have been a part of Seward High School athletics."

While Draper has no complaints about the athletes he coached, he did develop some complaints about the way the school district handles activities.

"I haven't had a raise in 25 years of coaching," Draper said. "Because of the school district, an incoming coach can come in a year and make the same amount as I do after 25 years.

"What's that all about?"

Draper believes athletics are a very important part of high school. He said he would not have made it through high school without athletics. Because he values athletics so much, he said the district should strive to get the best coaches possible.

Draper believes there should be a step or two coaches can move up based on experience, so coaches with the most experience make the most money.

He also said smaller schools' ability to compete is being hurt by the number of sports being offered.

"When we have all these sports like soccer, baseball, girls softball and track and field, we can't compete. Our athletes are fragmented and the only thing we can be is mediocre," he said.

Rich Houghton, Seward cross-country ski coach

After living in Seward for 16 years, Houghton will move to Colorado in mid-July. The parents of Houghton and his wife are still living. Living in the Lower 48 will allow the Houghtons more opportunities to see their parents. It also will mean a few more opportunities for Houghton's children.

Houghton said coaching cross-country skiing in Seward was tough because the area received so much rain in the winter.

Houghton did have the opportunity to coach Aubrey Smith, who now has her eye on making the 2006 Olympics in cross-country skiing.

For the last five years, Houghton also has served as Seward's athletic director. He said he built on former athletic director Roger Steinbrecher's success. This year, Houghton said 151 students out of Seward's 257-member student body were involved with activities.

He also said he is happy with the progress the booster club for Seward athletics made over the last five years.

"It's kind of my hope, in leaving the program, that it will stay at the same level or improve," Houghton said. "I'd just like to give a note of thanks to the athletic directors and coaches I've worked with over the years."

Houghton also has helped organize the famed Mount Marathon race on the Fourth of July for 14 years. This year, he is serving as the race director.

"I'll be living at 7,000 feet. I should train at altitude then come back and run it," Houghton joked.

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