High School Sports

Capital’s Chris Penner will leave a legacy of big achievements and fun moments

Chris Penner scored 1,505 points for Capital High School’s boys basketball team — all of them with Brian Vandiver as his coach. The Cougars reached the Class 3A state tournament twice during his career, and won their first game in the Tacoma Dome since 1996 this season.

But one of Vandiver’s most vivid memories of Penner won’t be his 3-point shooting accuracy, or his drives to the basket, or any of those how-did-he-do-that baskets.

Would you believe it’s maple bars?

On Saturday mornings, the Cougars would sometimes have an early practice, followed by running the Little Cougars activities for future students. Vandiver would usually bring a box of doughnuts.

“When I’m old and looking back on the last few years, what I’m going to remember is Chris getting way more excited than a kid his age normally would over doughnuts,” Vandiver said. “He’s a 4.0 student, a great athlete and a great person but he’s a genuine goofball, too.”

Penner acknowledged his fondness for doughnuts, particularly maple bars, and his ability to be an intense competitor in games, but a light-hearted guy until tipoff.

“You can take practice seriously, and still have fun,” he said.

Vandiver said Penner, who had two huge games at last week’s state tournament in the Tacoma Dome, scoring 26 points in a win over West Seattle and 29 in a loss to Kelso, can make himself the punch line.

“He can make fun of himself,” Vandiver said. “He’s got a genuine love for being on the court with his buddies playing ball. He’s carefree. He’s so competitive on the court, but he almost always has a smile on his face.”

Penner has been affected by Tourette’s Syndrome since age 5. The neurological disorder, among other symptoms, occasionally causes facial tics while he’s tracking his man on defense. But, even when mean-spirited opposing student sections reminded him of the tics, he shrugged off the taunting.

“He’s embraced his Tourette’s,” Vandiver said.

“It helps team chemistry when other guys know you can make fun of yourself,” said Penner, who recalls the Cougars’ 2016-17 state tournament team as one with several “goofballs.”

This year’s Capital squad may have been a bit more serious, but enjoyed advancing through a 3A South Sound Conference co-championship, and the 3A West Central/Southwest bidistrict tournament to the state playoffs, where the Cougars beat Shorecrest in a regional contest, and West Seattle in a loser-out, first-round game in Tacoma.

For all of Penner’s intangibles, he has the numbers to back up his selection as The Olympian’s 2019 All-Area boys basketball player of the year. He earned first-team All-Area honors last season, and second team in 2017, to pair with three first-team selections in football, dating back to his sophomore year.

He is Capital’s second all-time leading scorer and holds a slew of Cougars career records, including most 3-pointers (210), most free throws (317) and highest free-throw percentage in a four-year varsity career (78.3).

This season, he averaged 17.9 points per game and committed only 27 turnovers during Capital’s 21-6 season. He added school records for most 3-pointers in a season (87) and a game (10).

“When Chris gets going, it’s magical,” Vandiver said the night Penner’s 26 points — including 13 in the fourth quarter — helped the Cougars gain their first victory at a state tournament site in 23 years over West Seattle.

“He has nights where he can completely control a basketball game.”

Two nights later, Capital was eliminated by Kelso in a remarkable showdown between two of the state’s most clutch players. Penner finished with 29 — including 8-of-20 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc — but the Hilanders’ 6-foot-5 forward Shaw Anderson totaled 35.

“They weren’t guarding each other, but there were points in the game where it was definitely Chris versus Shaw. They both wanted it, neither one of them wanted to go home,” Vandiver said.

It’s in moments like that when Vandiver doesn’t recognize the “goofy” Penner.

Back in January, the Cougars trailed Timberline, which had beaten them the first time around on a buzzer-beater by their own go-to guy — Hunter Campau.

Penner first knocked down a pair of free throws to send the game into overtime, then won it, 56-54, with a pull-up jumper in the lane with 1.7 seconds left.

“He willed us to that win,” Vandiver said. “He has a whole different look about him in situations like that. You see it in his eyes.”

“I kind of just feel it. I can’t explain it,” Penner said.

For four years, Penner has been a play-making mainstay of both the Cougars football and basketball teams. He’s been an All-Area wide receiver, played defensive back and done the place-kicking in football, then transitioned, with lifelong two-sport teammate Grant Erickson, to basketball each winter.

The time has arrived he’ll never wear a uniform with “Capital” printed across the front again.

“It’s a different feeling, coming to school and not having a practice or a training session,” he said. “It’s weird. I don’t think it’s completely hit me yet.”

Inspired by his dad Erik’s work as an emergency room doctor and feeling what he calls a sense of “compassion” from his battle with Tourette’s, Penner plans a career as a physician.

His college choice is an ongoing process, though he recently decided he will almost certainly play basketball, not football.

Seattle Pacific — which has already landed both Anderson and Curtis standout Zach Paulsen — has offered, and Whitworth and Pacific Lutheran remain in the running.

Penner will leave a big gap for Capital to fill.

“We’ve got a great group of juniors coming up,” Vandiver said. “But we’ll have to do it differently. We won’t be able to say, ‘Get it to Chris and get out of the way.’ ”