WALLOWA — A face familiar to many in the region will grace the sideline for the Wallowa boys basketball team this fall — though most may recognize him from his days donning a whistle rather than carrying a clipboard.
Deon Chandler, who has spent the last six years as an OSAA official in Northeastern Oregon, has taken the reins of the Cougar program, replacing Cody Lathrop, who had coached Wallowa for the last two years.
It is his first high school head coaching role in more than a decade. He coached Cove for one season in 2004-05, with the Leopards going 7-11 that winter, according to ORHSsportsrecords.com.
“And (I) helped coach AAU basketball, coached individual youth outside of the basketball program,” Chandler said in outlining his coaching experience.
The former Eastern Oregon University basketball player said he stepped into officiating to see the game from a different perspective.
“I just wanted to see the other side of the basketball, from being a fan and playing (the) game, to being an official. I wanted to see all angles of basketball,” he said.
That experience, he believes, will be beneficial in helping players know the dos and don’ts on the court.
“I think just officiating games over the last (six) years, being able to help the kids out what you can do and what you can’t do on the court, and trying to keep the kids in the game longer with(out) fouling out of games,” he said.
He takes over a young Wallowa program, and knows there is a challenge ahead this winter, but is up for the task.
“We got 15 kids out, and I think out of the 15, I think four of them are freshmen,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of hard work on the court, eager to play, eager to learn. They are hardworking kids, they want to play, want to work hard, want to have fun.”
Given the youth on the team, Chandler’s focus is going to be on fundamentals and on defense. Willie Gibbs figures to be the team leader, and the senior is a player Chandler will rely mightily on.
“I’m going to lean on Willie Gibbs,” Chandler said. “He is going to be a big leader, step up, play a big role, running the floor and helping the guys.”
Senior Ryder Goller and freshman Gabe Nobles are also among the players who could be crucial pieces for the Cougars.
“They’re coming a long way in a week,” he said. “They took on the challenge, and they surprised me by winning the challenge.”
The Cougars begin play Wednesday, Dec. 1 in Enterprise, then host South Wasco County two days later.
Their Old Oregon League opener is Jan. 4 at home against Joseph.
“If they work hard for me, I’ll work hard for them,” Chandler said. “Whether we win or lose, if they put in 100%, they’re winners at the end of the day, and we’re going to surprise some people this year.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the grade of a player.