Team spirit thrives for ailing coach

One coach returns to lead Bears into 4A baseball playoffs while another fights through cancer

MEG WOCHNICK; Staff writerMay 7, 2013 

Adjoining Greg Creighton’s human anatomy and sports medicine classroom at Olympia High School is his office. There, in front of the office window, sits his favorite photo.

It’s a picture of him and Todd McDougall standing in center field at Safeco Field in Seattle in 2008 when the Bears made the program’s first trip to the Class 4A state semifinals.

Creighton coached baseball at Olympia before McDougall became the head coach. He has also coached with McDougall as his assistant. This year, because of McDougall’s battle with a cancerous brain tumor, he’s coaching the Bears without his longtime friend.

“I didn’t know how special he was to me,” Creighton said, “until this happened.”

Creighton became Olympia’s interim coach this spring, at McDougall’s wish. Creighton said it has been difficult to be the glue that keeps the senior-dominated team intact, the primary energy that keeps the program moving forward every day.

The Bears have played with heavy hearts, but they’ve played well. Olympia won the 4A Narrows regular-season title and carry a 16-5 record into today’s 7 p.m. game against Puyallup in the opening round of the 4A West Central/Southwest bi-district tournament at Kent’s Art Wright Field.

The players have learned about more than baseball this season under Creighton and they’ve played for something more than themselves; they’re playing for their coach who can’t be there.

“He never leaves our minds,” senior third baseman Gabe Padukiewicz said of McDougall. “He’s not quitting, and we’re not quitting, either.”

BOND STARTED IN 1992

Creighton, 60, has taught at Olympia for almost 30 years and was the Bears’ head baseball coach from 1985-92.

That fall, McDougall, a Tacoma native and 1988 Stadium High graduate, was hired to teach English. He had just wrapped up his college baseball playing career at Whitworth, where he was a third baseman and catcher, and was slated to be an assistant to Creighton.

But Creighton, after eight years, decided to resign. Suddenly, the head-coaching gig was McDougall’s at age 22.

Creighton, who rejoined the program as an assistant in 2003, can’t talk about McDougall for long without getting emotional. They’ve made memories traveling to New York and Yankee Stadium, and to Arizona to watch former Olympia players Adam Conley and Kramer Champlin – both now playing minor-league baseball – pitch for Washington State and Arizona State, respectively.

“A lot of stuff we’ve done are some of the top 10 moments I’ve done in my life,” Creighton said.

So when the reason behind McDougall’s sudden flu-like symptoms and months of headaches were revealed before the December holiday season, Creighton was devastated.

Creighton visits McDougall almost daily. He and his wife, Laurie, Olympia’s longtime head volleyball coach who recently retired from teaching, are part of an inner circle who help the family – McDougall’s wife of 14 years, Julie, and their three children, 12-year-old Marlee and 9-year-old twins Andrew and Dylan.

After chemotherapy and radiation treatments failed to stop the tumor’s growth, McDougall is responding well to treatment to improve brain function and currently is receiving complete care at an Olympia-based skilled nursing facility.

Creighton’s physcial therapy background comes in handy since McDougall is in a wheelchair.

MORE THAN BUSY

Feb. 25 was the first day of practice for the 2013 high school season and Creighton was in charge, assisted by the program’s familiar varsity coaching staff of Mark Zarate, Dan Stewart and Reid Hamblet. For the first time, there was a pre-tryout meeting so parents could be filled in on the changes.

Creighton, who teaches a full day of classes at Olympia, arrives by 6:30 a.m. weekdays. With practice, classes and games, he might not get home until after dark. Then there are the daily practice and game-day issues to worry about: How’s the weather outside? Is the gymnasium available? Is the field playable? What’s today’s lineup? All the logistical things he left behind 20 years ago were his worries again.

It has taken an emotional toll, but Creighton is doing everything how McDougall would want it.

“He’s put his whole heart into it,” said Steve Roth, the Bears’ junior varsity coach.

Creighton is no McDougall. He is a quiet coach with a soft approach, but the players have responded to it. Practices haven’t changed much, and their routines, for the most part, have stayed the same.

Players on the team – 12 are seniors – praised the work the coaching staff has done, and the coaching staff, in turn, praised how the players have handled the situation.

“I wouldn’t have taken it if this was a whole new group of guys that I didn’t have a relationship with,” Creighton said. “We’re all in this together, and I think we’re doing the best we can.”

The season started off with tough non-league games against Puyallup, Emerald Ridge and Timberline, all losses. After their first six games, the Bears’ record was 3-3.

Since then, they’ve lost only twice, and both times to South Kitsap, including a 2-1 defeat to the Wolves in last Friday’s 4A Narrows League tournament title game.

There have been special moments on and off the field: Elliott Loague’s no-hitter against Bellarmine Prep; clinching the team’s sixth straight 4A Narrows League regular-season title; and seeing McDougall on game days. The Bears are 4-1 when McDougall is present, giving players more motivation to win.

Players embrace him after games, and he receives the game ball after victories.

DEEP IMPACT

McDougall’s presence is everywhere, every day: Baseball patches with his signature are on the left sleeve of team jerseys, and an insignia of his signature adorns the side of their caps. The initials “TM” are written on players’ cleats. He’s a part of the team’s conversations often. They play for him, play like he’s there.

“We’re trying to (honor him) every day,” said Loague. “Everyone has come together and it’s been amazing.”

Creighton wants the players to appreciate more than playing the game they love. He hopes they are “loving what you’re doing.”

“You never know when you can’t do it anymore,” he said.

For Gabe Padukiewicz, McDougall’s impact on him stretches beyond baseball and football, where McDougall has been a longtime assistant coach. McDougall was his English teacher as a junior and Padukiewicz was his teacher’s assistant this fall.

“He has shown me how great of a person he is,” he said.

Meg Wochnick: 360-754-5473 mwochnick@theolympian.com theolympian.com/southsoundsports @MegWochnick

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