Determined Huskies won Sweet Home's only hoops title
February 3, 2021
Ed Nieman really never had plans to be a basketball coach.
And it really wasn't a long journey for him to the bench, but the trip took him a long way: to Sweet Home High School's first and only state title, in 1993.
"I was kind of an unintended coach," Nieman said.
And, he makes it very, very clear, it wasn't all about him. It was devoted players who had working together down to a science, parents who were willing to do what it took to support their sons and the team, a great trainer and assistant coaches who made the difference in getting the Huskies to the championship. And it was a process that didn't just happen in that golden season.
Regardless, Nieman was the linchpin who brought it all together, though he kind of fell into it, he says. Born and raised in Crawfordsville, he'd played basketball for Coach Bill Hughes at Sweet Home Union High School, as well as a little football, and did some wrestling.
"I wasn't a great athlete by any means. I was pretty average. I started on varsity as a senior. We had a respectable season. I always enjoyed the game, those kinds of things."
Teaching, he said, wasn't really on his radar as he headed off to the University of Oregon as a Sweet Home graduate in 1966. He graduated in 1970 with a degree in psychology, but he'd developed other interests.
"I majored in psychology but I took all kinds of literature courses," Nieman recalled. "I got an idea I might want to teach literature. I really enjoyed it."
The Start: A Teaching Credential
Some "forceful encouragement" from his father prompted him to enroll at Oregon College of Education, now Western Ore-gon University, where he earned a master's degree in literature and a teaching certificate, completing his student teaching at North Salem, where he was offered a job.
"For some strange reason, I thought, 'I've got to go back to Sweet Home. I know people there.'"
He applied and was hired to teach English – and to coach.
"When I applied for the job here I was going to teach and I was prepared to do that, but the coaching was a real curve ball for me.
"They said they'd like me to coach. I said, 'You'd like me to coach? What do I have to do to do that? Go back to school? This or that?'
"They said 'No, we'd just like you to coach.'"
So he did, starting out with the wrestling team under Norm Davis and moving to football, which he coached for 17 years. Along the way, he was added to the basketball staff, under Head Coach Felix Wilkerson, who took the Huskies to state for the first time ever.
"He and Norm Davis were both really instrumental in getting me going. Norm was the head football coach in addition to being wrestling coach at that time. He was a great man and Felix was a wealth of information for me.
"I coached basketball with Felix. He put the foundation in for me. I used him constantly. I used him as an assistant and we continued to hash things over."
New Varsity Coach
In 1984 Nieman took over as varsity head coach. Success was tantalizingly close, but it didn't come right away, he said.
"I felt ready to be a varsity coach," he said. "My first class, when they were sophomores, we went 12-2 as a JV team. I thought, 'What an opportunity.' But it didn't turn out that way.
"We were so close all the way through, but I can't tell you how many games we lost by one or two points. It was just crazy. We just couldn't break through. I felt bad for the kids – sleepless nights, all those things."
In the next few years he had more teams that came close.
"We lost two heartbreakers," to miss the state tournament, he said.
Salem Academy grabbed a turnover and went full-court to score and win, to end the Huskies' season one year. The next year, at North Marion, Sweet Home missed the front end of a one-and-one, and one of the Huskies punched the ball out of bounds with two seconds left on the clock.
"They threw it to half court and a kid turned around, threw it up and – swish, they knocked us out."
Learning to Play at State
In 1986-87 Nieman had "maybe the best talent that we had" in a team led by returning starters Vince Barrett, who as a junior had been a three-year starter, Wynn Morris, Lonnie Keenon and Mark John. They were joined by a transfer from North Marion, Kirk Pearson, whose brother had thrown up that half-court shot that beat Sweet Home the year before.
"Their dad, Ron Pearson, had played in Sweet Home."
The team was "loaded," he said, but so was the state tournament. And Nieman was inexperienced at that level.
All season, the Huskies had played man defense as they blew through the summer league and mowed their way through the Valley League opposition.
"We really felt confident, that we were one of the teams to beat – which we were. We could have won it all."
In the second round of state, Sweet Home faced Philomath, and Nieman got the idea to open with a 2-3 zone.
"That would be a curve ball to them. But they shot the lights out in the first quarter and opened up a big lead on us. I was too stubborn and we stayed in the zone too long."
In the second quarter the Huskies went back to man defense, but it was too late.
"We had a great run, but we lost a really close ball game. That was the big stage. That was my big moment. We had the talent, all those things. And I had a great idea.
"I learned a valuable lesson: If you come up with an idea and it's not working right away, get away from it."
Program Built from Ground Up
The program was growing stronger, though, and the younger athletes in Sweet Home were noticing, said Brandon Gaskey, who was a three-year starter at guard for the varsity.
"I think we were in the eighth grade when they took second," he recalled. "It was a dream of ours to get back to state."
Nieman focused on reaching players at a young age, through the Husky Basketball Camp, for instance, he said.
"Many of our camps had well over 100 grade school and junior high players," he said, adding that he used his high school athletes to coach the camps, "to create a bond with those youngsters."
"This was a big part of the surge of interest in the program."
Prospective future Huskies nailed basketball hoops to their garages and barns, and they bought into the Sweet Home mentality.
"As a coach, I felt that the best avenue to create success was to convince the players that our approach was best," Nieman said. "And with that belief, it took the commitment of the players and tons of sweat to make it a reality. There were no shortcuts or paved roads in Husky basketball – only good attitude and hard work from year after year of great kids."
That approach started paying off.
After a couple more close misses, the Huskies went back to state and, in 1990, placed second to Central, with starters Chad Green, Scott Nelson, Derek Ader, Troy Wolfe and Matt Pyke.
"They were a tremendous defensive team – we drove some people pretty much nuts with the defense, the quickness we had," Nieman recalled.
It wasn't really pressure defense, he said, but the Huskies played smart, help defense and they played with confidence, without fouls.
Central went on to win its third 2A state title in a row, but the Huskies were second in what was now a 32-team tournament.
They came close again the next year, getting beaten in a close league game with the playoffs on the line.
The next year, 1991-92, Nieman took a bunch of his players to the Seaside Oregon Prep Basketball Camp, which drew talented teams from across Oregon, Washington and California. They were a mixture of seniors, who were likely starters, and some talented younger players. Nieman instituted a platoon system in which each group – a mixture of seniors and underclassmen – would play four minutes, then switch with the next group.
Facing Parkrose of Portland in the tournament, the Huskies got humiliated.
"They rubbed our face in it," Nieman said. "They didn't mind doing it verbally. It was ugly."
He mentioned it to the Parkrose coach, but otherwise let it go.
"The players were kind of beat up by it. The thing I didn't realize was the kids were taking some mental notes."
Sweet Home started the 1991-92 season with 10 straight losses using the platoon system. Nieman called a team meeting.
"I said, 'We're 0-10. I've got to look at what we're doing. We've gotta look to the future.'
"These were things I already knew. I knew it in the summer, but I wanted to give these seniors, who'd been with the program, a chance. But it wasn't working. So I started sophomores and juniors."
The Huskies won seven of their last eight games and made the playoffs, losing only to Molalla on a last-second basket. Molalla went on to place third at state.
Huskies Come Together
The next year, his players were back, "chomping at the bit," Nieman said.
Back at the Seaside camp in the summer of '92, the Huskies had an agenda.
"My kids were asking me when we got there, 'You're gonna go in and schedule games. If Parkrose is here, we wanna play them.' So I said, 'Sure, I'll see what I can do.'"
The next day they faced off with the Broncos.
"My kids just absolutely beat them up, just destroyed them. We never badmouthed them. We never said anything. After the game, they didn't rub it in or anything like that. But they didn't forget anything that happened to them. And they just went out and beat them up."
Later in the week, the Sweet Home players told Nieman they wanted another game with Parkrose. Nieman approached the Broncos coach, who told him, "My kids don't want to play you any more."
They went 30-2 that summer.
"I knew, they knew," Nieman said. "I knew we were going to have a chance to make a run at it, but there were good teams in our league."
Going into the season, the Huskies were led by starters Gaskey, Brandy "Joe" Frederick, Bryce Nieman, the coach's son, Ben Pyke and Jerry Upward.
"I wish I could mention everyone because everyone, regardless of record, or whether or not they were a starter, those kinds of things, played integral parts in building this program," Ed Nieman said. "We couldn't practice, we couldn't do anything without the rest of the team. You learn so much."
Sweet Home didn't have outstanding size, but the Huskies had five key characteristics, he said: patience, chemistry, coachability, basketball smarts and the ability to close – they stayed calm.
"I think it was Jerry Upward and Brandy Frederick who came into my room at the start of the season and said, 'Coach, we've got something to tell you.'
"I said, 'What's that, guys?'
"They said, 'We're gonna win the state championship for ya.' They'd had these discussions as a team and thoughts and stuff. They carried it all through the summer. They knew they were going to make a run at it. It was just the confidence they had, the trust they had in each other. All those things. They thought they were going to run. It was absolutely amazing."
Sweet Home knew how to close, he said. "they could win close ballgames and do it with confidence."
Also, the 1992-93 Huskies had great chemistry.
"They were best friends, from top to bottom; all 12 guys on that team were like brothers. There was absolutely no jealousy, no talking – 'he got more points, more rebounds,' that kind of stuff. They were a joy."
And they were good, really good.
The Capitol Conference that year was "100 percent stacked, head to toe, with talent," Gaskey said. "There was not one team that couldn't beat any other team on a given night."
With five teams ranked in the state's top 10, it was clear that, with only two teams qualifying for state from each league, talented clubs were going to be left out.
"Woodburn, Cascade, they could beat anybody on any night. They wound up not even going to state."
The Huskies beat Stayton in a tie-breaker for the league title, then dropped a seeding game to the Eagles.
"But we knew we could beat anybody," Gaskey said.
Unselfish, Tough Basketball Team
The Huskies weren't physically talented – "our tallest guy, our starting center Brandy Frederick, was listed at 6-4, but he was probably more like 6-2¾," he recalled. "But we were hard to beat because we could attack in different ways. We played a slower-paced game. Me and Brandy were the leading scorers and we averaged 14 points a game."
He noted that Bryce Nieman, "a great basketball player," sacrificed what could have been some significant statistical accomplishments to play point guard for the Huskies, which usually meant he faced the other teams' best players.
"Everybody sacrificed in their roles to support each other."
Then-Athletic Director Larry Johnson, whose son Scott was on the varsity team that year, said the Huskies' success came down to "hard work and commitment and team play – those kinds of things. It took some of those kids a long way.
"For me, Coach Nieman got the most for those kids' ability – and even more, sometimes. I tell you, at least one of those teams we beat, skill-wise, they had more aces than we did. But they weren't more disciplined. Coach Nieman was known for that."
Gaskey described Nieman as having "a great basketball mind but a very simplistic approach."
"It was just simple, hard-nosed basketball – made fun. Our team was a group of unsung heroes who were all willing to do the dirty work, I can honestly say, one to 13 on the roster. There wasn't a guy who took a practice off.
"That whole team was just a special team. We all knew our roles. We worked hard for each other, diving for balls, that kind of stuff."
They were experienced and confident, but they weren't cocky, "because we hadn't been there before," he said.
Community Steps Up
It was big for the community too, Johnson said.
"We hadn't been in that frame of mind since Matt Wilkerson," he said, referring to the Huskies' first-ever trip to state, in 1977. The old guard would come, the people who'd been around the program for a long time.
"It was really great. They were a good group of kids – high academics, high personal values. They had the respect of other people.
"Officials loved coming to Sweet Home. They enjoyed that group. They were good sports."
It was fun for players, Gaskey said.
"This was in the old Sweet Home gym. We'd get that thing packed even on Tuesday night. People would pack in there and we'd get it shaking. I can't tell you how much support we got from the local community. It didn't even matter whether people liked basketball or not – they'd show up to watch. Everybody knew your name. It was a really exciting time to be part of that."
"We took busloads of kids down (to the state tournament in Eugene)," Johnson said.
The State Tournament
At state, Sweet Home, now 13-3 after that Stayton loss, found itself in a bracket that included the No. 1-, 2- and No. 4-ranked teams.
The Huskies beat Marist in a "tough" first-round match-up, Gaskey said.
Frederick had fouled out in the fourth quarter and, with seconds left, Bryce Nieman couldn't find an open man – until he spotted back-up center Luke Pyke on the baseline and delivered the ball to him for a last-second, back-door layup.
"That's how it went," Gaskey said. "We played together so well, we could do stuff like that, that wasn't planned."
After downing Madras, Sweet Home faced Hood River Valley and state Player of the Year Mike Sandlin in a game of contrasting styles – deliberate Sweet Home against the run-and-gun Eagles.
"They could score from anywhere, but they'd never faced anybody like us, who could lock down, defensively," said Gaskey, who helped the Huskies by getting "hot" and scoring 12 points in the first quarter. "I didn't miss."
"We just stepped up, played defense on those guys that they hadn't seen all season long. We rebounded well, we shared the ball, we controlled the clock."
Facing Stayton (Again)
Sweet Home's players found themselves in the finals, facing Stayton, which had just beaten Henley in the semifinals with a half-court shot in overtime.
Gaskey said that by the time the state tournament started, the teams had met at least nine times, counting summer league games, that year.
"We knew each other extremely well. They knew every one of our plays and we knew every one of their plays. We had very similar styles. Every starter they had almost mirrored every starter we had in whom they played. Their guards were both juniors, like me and Bryce. We'd been playing each other since seventh grade."
And Sweet Home had Stayton's respect.
In fact, Eagles Coach Gene Quilhaugh conveyed to Nieman a request from the Stayton players that they warm up together before the state final.
The players kiboshed that idea, and senior guard Skip Marler piped up with a "classic" response, Nieman recalled: "'Coach, can you tell them this for us? Tell them we'll stretch with them after the game.' Everybody busted out laughing."
In the locker room at Mac Court on the University of Oregon campus before the game, Nieman told the team, "We know this is a team we can beat. We've beaten them two times. We know what they're going to do, they know what we're going to do. What we have to do is go out and control the ball. Get a good shot every time we go down the floor."
"That was our plan," he said.
The state final was a "defensive dogfight," he recalled.
The Huskies went with a ball-control game plan.
On Stayton's last possession of the first half, Nieman knew the Eagles would run a back-screen offense to try to score, something they frequently did. The Huskies had prepared a response.
"The kids called it 'bird dog,'" he said. "We were a man-to-man team. We played man all year. But we went to a triangle-and-two for their last play – three players in zone, and two players man to man. Jerry Upward and Bryce played man-to-man on their two best shooting guards."
They went for it and Stayton couldn't get a shot off before the buzzer sounded with Sweet Home up 17-14.
"Gene stomped his foot just about through the floor. We raced in at halftime. I surprised myself and my kids in my halftime talk: 'You know, they didn't figure that out. We're going to try it again.'
"We went out and started with it. We never got out of it in the second half. It worked all the way through and that's the only time we'd used it all season."
It turned out to be a nail-biter, he said.
"I was sitting on the bench and we were nearing the end of the game, probably three minutes to go and we were up seven points or something like that. I was thinking to myself, "My gosh, we're going to win this thing on my son's birthday' – Bryce's. When I thought that, it was like a jolt of electricity went through me, three minutes to go, and it was like my fingernails almost just shot off. I just shook my head and thought, 'Don't think it. Don't think it. Don't think it.'
"I'll be darned if they didn't come down and hit two quick threes and it was down to the races, down to the end. It became a one-basket game down to the end."
Gaskey recalled that he missed a free throw that would have iced the game.
"To this day, it bothers me," he said. "But on the next play, Jerry stripped Tim Manning, Stayton's outstanding outside shooter, and we ran out the clock."
The Huskies won, 39-36, Sweet Home's first state title in the 78 years basketball had been played at the school.
They finished with the highest field goal percentage of the 16 teams in the tournament, making 72 of 156 (.462) and three-pointers (seven of 15, .467, including going 4 for 4 against Hood River). Upward led all free-throw shooters in the tournament, going 14-16 (.875).
More Trips to State
"There's absolutely no question that that team had the greatest chemistry of any team I've ever had," Nieman said. "They just absolutely loved the game. They had great desire. They had great fundamentals. They had great skills. They weren't necessarily the biggest or the fastest or anything else. But they were absolutely determined beyond belief."
Sweet Home had more close encounters with the state tournament, including a return trip in 1994, where they went 1-2 to miss the medals round. The following seasons were marred by injuries to key starters, one of which was Ed Nieman's son Kyle, who suffered a knee injury in 1996 and had to sit out his senior season.
"That affected us deeply as a family," Nieman said. "It was heartbreaking."
He decided to take a year off and then, midway through that season, in which Wilkerson came out of retirement to lead the Huskies, he decided to call it quits for good.
Mark Risen took the helm after that and led Sweet Home to another runner-up finish, a two-point loss to Pleasant Hill in 1999, then placed fourth in 2000, followed by another state appearance in 2004, when the Huskies lost in overtime to Estacada in a first-round game.
'Grateful for the Opportunity'
"All I have is thanks," Nieman said of his experience, noting that he had lots of help from his coaching staff.
In particular, Fred Dodge was a longtime assistant, coaching the junior varsity for years, he noted.
"He gave me good ideas. He had a good mind for it."
Another big contributor was West, who had retired from coaching wrestling.
"Bruce West was absolutely amazing for me," Nieman said. "He was our trainer. I'll tell you what, I wasn't a taper. Bruce was absolutely a professional in taping. One kid asked me to tape him. I taped him and the word got out and no one ever came back.
"Bruce took over that. But he wasn't just a taper, and a trainer and an icer and all those kinds of things – a doctor to them. He was a counselor. All those kids spent time with him, he sat them down, 'If you're having a problem, what is it? How are you doing out there on the court?' He was instrumental in connecting with the kids."
He said parents were often very supportive, even if their sons weren't in the starting lineup.
"It's difficult to be a parent of an athlete. Not every one of my athletes were starters and not every one of my students got A's that were my favorite athletes and my favorite students. If their kids were getting B's and C's and the player was the 12th man and didn't get much playing time, that's not to say he wasn't appreciated as much as the starters.
"I have so much respect for parents to be able to realize their kids are getting something out of this other than accolades and being in the paper and other things – that we can't do it without them."
Another big contributor, he said, was the way the fans hung with the team.
"The Rowdy 40. The incredible thing about that was they were faithful. I think the opposition that came in, their heads were somewhat spun by how involved this group was. It wasn't 40. It was whatever they decided – it might have been 80, it might have been 100. We packed the stands. It was impressive, a fun thing to see."
His family also contributed, Nieman said.
"Special thanks to my wife, my boys. It's not easy to be coach's son, a teacher's son. We, as a family, lived it together. My kids still talk about it. It was cool."
"Coaching really can be tough," Nieman said, launching into a parable to illustrate that: "Someone asked me, 'Ever hear anyone behind you in the stands being critical?'
"I said, 'Well, I don't hear well out of one ear and I don't really pay any attention. But I did have one instance that's really bugging me.'
"They said, 'What's that? What'd you hear?'
"I said, 'There were a couple of ladies behind me in the stands and they were unmercifully yelling things out: "Get with the program, coach. You're better than that. Someone get in here and make some good decisions. Guy's an idiot. We need someone here who can do it."
"'Finally, I'd had it. I turned around to give them my stare-down and as I turned around, it was my wife and her mother."
He added, "None of this happened, but I tell this story all the time. Sometimes it can be tough."
Nieman said he remembers all his teams with pride.
"My greatest memories are about the means and not the end," he said. "It wasn't about the trophies, but all the hours we spent together over the years.
"My journey with my players I will treasure forever. You guys gave me the thrill of a lifetime and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity."