Phil Vesel always saw himself sitting on the bench, wearing a tie and drawing up plays.
From his days in Forest Lake, Minn., the first-year boys basketball coach at Hood River Valley has always been something of a “hoop-a-holic.”
He loved to compete, he loved to teach, and most of all, he loved to win. But he also liked calling the shots. That, in part, is what brought him to HRV.
“Coaching basketball is just in my nature,” said Vesel, the former head assistant at Warner-Pacific College in Portland. “I’ve always believed that you need to be mentally tough to play any sport, and I have an intuitive ability to impart that to my players.”
Like most kids, Vesel began playing basketball in his backyard. He credits his father, Fred, for sparking his interest and doing whatever he could to give him an opportunity to play.
Later on, he developed a game philosophy after years of playing under high-school coach Brian Hegseth, and coaching alongside Bart Valentine at Warner Pacific.
Vesel, 27, has always had a devout passion for the game of basketball, and after playing one year at the University of Portland as a walk-on, he decided that the best way for him to stay directly involved was to become a coach.
After playing at U of P during the 1993-94 season, Vesel transferred to Arizona State University for one year, and then returned to Portland in 1997-98 and finished his two degrees — Health Education and Health Fitness Promotion — at Portland State University.
“I decided to give up the dream after my one season of college ball,” he said. “But I still played in some city leagues and did whatever I could to be close to the game.”
The self-proclaimed “gym rat” played basketball whenever he had free time, and spent the rest of his time studying the game.
According to Vesel’s players, that dedication and respect for the game comes through in every practice.
“In just two months, I’ve learned more about the game of basketball than I had the previous 10 years,” senior point guard Andy Holmson said.
“He has a great understanding of the fundamentals, and expects a lot from us. Part of the reason we have started 2-5 is that we’re still learning his system. But we’re slowly figuring it out, and by midseason, I think you will see a much more disciplined, focused team,” he said.
Neither Holmson nor Vesel hesitate when they say that the 2002-03 Eagles will be among the top four teams in the Intermountain Conference standings.
This year’s group has a new confidence and a new swagger that won’t allow them to accept anything short of their goal.
“This season is already different than any of the others I’ve played here,” said senior guard Sam Murillo.
“None of us like to lose, and coach has had us focused right off the bat this year. I truly believe we’ll be in the playoffs because he believes in us.”
Murillo and the Eagles also believe in themselves, and while they have a long way to go before accomplishing their goal of earning the first 4A playoff berth in school history, they have to give up all sense of self and take one for the team.
“This year, no one misses practice,” Murillo said. “Coach doesn’t like excuses and he rewards hard work. If you come to practice and do the work, you’ll play. If you aren’t committed to the system he has in place, you won’t play. It’s as simple as that.”
But, so far, the Eagles have been buying in. While they have struggled in losses to Central Catholic and Franklin, they have also played out of their minds in wins over state-ranked Clackamas and former Mt. Hood Conference rival, Gresham.
The players realize that learning a new system is a process, and the only way to progress is through repetition. The frustrating part for both Vesel and the players is that time has not been on their side of late.
“Three practices in two weeks doesn’t help,” Vesel said. “We’ve been playing too many games, and it’s caused us to revert back to some bad habits. We just need more practices and we’ll get it going. I’m confident of that.”
The Eagles have two weeks to polish their gameplan before IMC play begins on Jan. 10 at league favorite Redmond. They then have eight weeks to accomplish their playoff goal.
“I’m hoping to start a playoff tradition this year,” said Vesel, “and if these guys continue to work hard, we’re going to be there.”