March 23, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
DAVID RASBACH - THE BELLINGHAM HERALD
One of the first things Bellingham High School teacher and former boys' basketball coach Steve Chronister did when he arrived at work Friday, March 23, was send out a staff-wide email letting colleagues know that Western Washington University's men's basketball team would be playing for the NCAA Division II national championship on Saturday.
"Some people may not follow Western all that closely, so I said that Bellingham High School graduate Zach Henifin and the Western Washington basketball team were going to be playing on national television on Saturday," Chronister said in a phone interview. "People like to know that kind of stuff. ... One of our former Red Raiders is going to be out there playing for a national title. It's going to be a blast to watch."
Chronister won't be the only Whatcom County resident tuning in to CBS at 10 a.m. Saturday to watch a former player he had a hand in helping develop take the court for Western when it plays the University of Montevallo (Ala.) for the national title.
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Henifin is one of three active Vikings players that graduated from Whatcom County high schools, joining WWU teammates Chris Mitchell from Nooksack Valley and Dane Thorpe from Sehome. Western freshman Kyle Impero, who is redshirting this season, also graduated from Nooksack Valley last spring.
"For sure, it's going to be cool to watch Zach play (Saturday)," Chronister said. "I know the Thorpe family pretty well. I don't know the Mitchells all that well, but from what I hear they are a great family. And of course, I have a ton of respect for (Western coach) Brad Jackson and all that he has accomplished there. It just makes this experience a whole lot more special to have those kinds of ties and really know some of those guys."
Very few people know Mitchell any better than his older brother, Tyler, who served as an assistant coach under Bill Kelly during Chris' sophomore through senior seasons before taking over the Pioneers as head coach for the 2007-08 season.
Tyler said his parents made the trip to Highland Heights, Ky., earlier this week to watch the Vikings play their first two games of the Elite Eight, but he couldn't get enough time off from teaching at Nooksack to make the trip. Instead, he said he's watched webcasts and game broadcasts of the first two games on Wednesday and Thursday, March 21-22, and his brothers and some friends plan to get together for a viewing party on Saturday morning.
"It's been awesome," Tyler said in a phone interview. "Any time you get to see your little brother play on TV on such a big stage and be so successful, it's unbelievable. It's been neat for the entire family to watch him play and play so well for the team and help the team get to this point. I talked to him after the semifinals (Thursday), and he was just so pumped."
Sehome boys' basketball coach A.J. LaBree, who coached Thorpe when he was a Mariner, said he remains in contact with Thorpe and has been impressed with the way Thorpe's former Sehome teammates have followed Western's run to the championship game on Facebook and other social media.
"I have a sense of pride in coaching Dane, but I don't want to take any credit for making him into the athlete he is today," LaBree said in a phone interview. "As soon as he stepped on the floor at Sehome, Dane was already nearly a double-double kind of guy. I've always thought that as long as he stays healthy, Dane could be a special player. ... I talk to Dane every once in a while, and he is really having a lot of fun and enjoying the experience. He's one of the younger guys on the team, so this has been a great experience for him to learn from Western's veteran guards. He's getting into most every game, and it's been a valuable experience for him."
Thorpe, who is a sophomore, has played in 33 games this season and is averaging 2.3 points and 1.4 rebounds.
Henifin, who also attended Whatcom Community College before moving on to Western, has started all 35 games this season. The senior forward is fourth on the team with 10.6 points per game and second with 6.0 rebounds. Jackson has repeatedly pointed to the Bellingham High graduate as a source of toughness the team has needed during its postseason run. Henifin also is second on the team with 63 steals.
"I've always said that I thought Zach could play at any level," Chronister said. "He seems to have a personality to adapt to his competition. I think it's because he has such great athleticism. You watch him play the game, and you immediately know how smart he is defensively. I think he can guard pretty much any position. He's very good at guarding post players. I think he's smart and is good at positioning himself, but he's also deceptively strong. He can guard out on the wing and probably even the point guard if they needed him to."
Chris Mitchell, a 6-foot-8 junior, has started 31 of 35 games and has become invaluable at center and has the ability to be effective on the perimeter, as well. He is averaging 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds and is tied for second on the team with 19 blocked shots this season.
"It's been really neat watching all those guys," LaBree said. "The guys on the team have been performing at such a high level, and to have three of those guys come from Whatcom County, it speaks a lot to the quality of basketball that comes out of this league and this area. Having coached Dane and coached against those other two guys on the team, you see what a steal Western gets when they get some of those guys to stick around and play close to home."