The roster of coaches at Mercer Island High School has always been impressive to me. In my position, you see different styles of coaching. Different people approach their duties differently. Some coaches take on the responsibility for different reasons — some good, and some bad. But MIHS has always had a plethora of good coaches.
With the retirement of Ed Pepple, the question becomes, “Where does the school go from here?” Pepple was one of the most successful coaches in state, if not United States, history. I will most definitely leave my thoughts out of the hiring process. The search will not be easy, and the powers that be at the high school don’t need my help.
While the school loses an icon, Pepple’s 952 wins and four state titles in highly competitive boys basketball overshadows a collection of great coaches.
Islander gymnastics coach Lenny Lewis becomes the longest tenured coach at the high school. Lewis started in 1988 and has taken a program with very few kids that have pre-high school gymnastics training and turned the team into a perennial challenger for the 3A KingCo title. But Lewis’ biggest success might be his ability to motivate his athletes. Getting a freshman to try the uneven bars for the first time, with the prospect of competing in front of a crowd, is not easy. Tumbling on the floor exercise is daunting enough with 100 people staring at you. But doing a cartwheel on a four-inch wide beam is another thing altogether. Lewis is not the second longest tenured head coach in school history, even at 20 years.
Former Mercer Island High School football coach Dick Nicholl led Islanders into the football stadium for three decades, and former MIHS wrestling coach Paul Jackson taught young men to twist their opponents into pretzels for nearly three decades as well.
Former tennis coach Jeff Mills coached at the high school for nearly three decades, and Frank Ceteznik coached swimming for two decades, as well. Having so many coaches with that kind of longevity is not altogether normal. It is not only their longevity, but their success that is impressive. Girls swimming coach Ceteznik won eight state titles, including seven in a row from 1992-1998. Mills won 15 state titles in 16 years with the Islander girls tennis team, among other accomplishments.
The current aquatics coach, Jeff Lowell, and tennis coach, Joyce Hedlund, aren’t too shabby either. Hedlund has continued Mills’ success and put her own stamp on things, winning 10 girls tennis state titles, making the program one of the most successful and dominant programs in Washington state history. All Lowell has done is kept the girls swimming program in the state title hunt every year and won four consecutive boys swimming state titles with the most dominating team in the sport’s Washington state history.
The high school also has a crop of new coaches who are making their mark and putting the high school on the map for more than tennis, swimming and boys basketball. The success of Mercer Island High School girls basketball was a long time coming. Coach Jamie Prescott has a chance to give Mercer Island a run of winning years at the state tournament level — something that would have been laughed at just three years ago.
Islander wrestling coach Creighton Laughary had the dubious task of taking over for a legend in his own right, Jackson. Laughary has managed to keep his teams competitive every season and won the league title last year. Laughary has done a good job maintaining the tradition that Jackson set forth. He has even helped to bring an annual wrestling tournament to the Island, which will raise the profile of the program in years to come.
Lacrosse has always been the stepbrother or stepsister during the spring for the more mainstream sports or baseball and boys soccer. But coach Ian O’Hearn has built the boys program into one of the best on the West Coast and a perennial power in Washington state. The team missed the state finals for the first time in nearly a decade last year.
Islander Brett Ogata will have a daunting task this fall as he steps to the Islander Stadium sidelines as head coach of the football team. The Islanders have had just one winning season during the past eight years. Ogata has Mercer Island in his blood, as he played and graduated from MIHS and has had the opportunity to coach under Nicholl, Hedlund and Pepple.
So while many people will miss seeing Pepple pace the sidelines of the basketball court, his legacy will be passed on through many of his proteges. And while his coaching legacy is undeniable and in the most elite of classes, other Islanders coaches have also made the maroon and white feared colors in Washington state high school sports.