Gone but not forgotten

On Feb. 19th my good friend Tyler Johnson passed away following complications from brain tumors. He leaves behind his wife Kelli and their daughter Evelyn, born only one week earlier. Fortunately, Tyler was able to be there for the birth and even cut the umbilical cord. Nancy and I have opened The Tyler Johnson Donation Fund at the U.S. Bank in Covington and invite all those interested to donate to this fund. All proceeds will go to Kelli in this time of need.

Most of you never knew Tyler. But maybe you had his mom, Vonnie, as your teacher at Rock Creek. Or maybe you met his dad, Craig, when you attended Tahoma Junior High, where he is the Dean of Students. Many of you know his younger brother Brian, who coaches with me.

I first met Tyler on the evening of March 1, 1999. That was the first practice for the Maple Valley Lacrosse Club. Tyler and four or five of his close friends from Tahoma High turned out for lacrosse. He was there with Brandon Bennett, DJ Lewis and a couple of others who met me at the dimly lit dirt field behind what is now called Tahoma Middle School. Not everyone had gear, but I think they all had a stick. They were a tight group of friends, mostly seniors and eager to learn a new sport. They were a happy bunch, but respectful and serious about learning the required skills. Tyler was clearly one of the leaders – always with a smile and obviously liked and respected by his buddies.

We practiced five nights in the rain that first week. It was cold and windy. But we had a great time. I remember at the end of practice on Friday night, I was thanking Tyler and the others for coming out as we scraped mud off our shoes before climbing into our cars to go home. I told them that it had been a fun week, that I appreciated them coming out each night, but that without more players we could not really field a team that season. I was pretty disappointed. They said, “Coach, don’t worry. We will get you more players next week.” And they did.

The following Monday we had seven or eight guys turn out, including Nate Holstein who would become our goalie for the next two years. By the end of the week we had 11 or 12 players turning out — we had enough for a team!

In those days the high school league was much smaller. There were a total of 14 teams divided into Divisions A and B (now 40 teams play in Division I and II). The newer and/or smaller teams were in Division B. In those early years the league held a league wide jamboree the second weekend of the season to celebrate and kick off the start of games. In 1999, Curtis High School hosted the jamboree.

Maple Valley showed up with 12 players. Our jerseys had not arrived yet, so we played that day wearing borrowed football scrimmage jerseys from Kentlake High School. They were torn and we looked pretty ratty. Our image perfectly fit the “Vandals” name those young men picked for our nickname. Because we had no uniform shorts, I asked the men to wear a pair of Hawaiian style shorts for the jamboree. I remember walking into the stadium early that Saturday morning with Tyler and the others. Teams were up in the stands waiting for their scheduled games. And as we walked by on the track below them, some actually laughed and many snickered at this newest member of the league. Only Brandon Bennett had ever played lacrosse before (middle school in Missouri). Tyler and the rest had 10 practices (or less for many) under their belt. But they all had heart. They played like wild men that day. They fought for every ground ball and there were a lot of ground ball opportunities given our limited catching ability. If they couldn’t pick the ball up, they would knock you down for getting near the ball. We left after losing two mini games and winning the final game by one goal. No one was laughing when we walked out of that stadium. Our season had begun!

The next week regular season games began. Our season opener was at Vashon. I had just left that program as coach, and they had won the Division B title in 1997. The Vultures were confident of a season opening victory. Most new teams were lucky to win a game in their first year and Vashon was not about to let us start with a win. The problem was they failed to tell Tyler or his teammates. It may not have been pretty, but we left the island with a 5-2 win.

Our next game was against Nathan Hale. Hale was the pre-season favorite to win Division B that year. They were loaded with talent, with a lot of returning starters. That game too was on the road. I told the men to not expect a win that night. I told them that Hale was too strong a team for us. I told them we lacked enough experience to win that night. I told them to play hard and learn from their mistakes because we would face them again later in the season. And I told them we could win that re-match. To this day, none of the players from my 1999 team have forgiven me for that speech. They played hard, but lost 8-4 that night. Tyler and Brandon (my two captains) told me after the game how bad my pre-game talk had been, that I was to never again tell them we were going to lose — prophetic words!

Thanks to the leadership of Tyler and Brandon, we ran the table the rest of that season. We beat teams from Bainbridge, Burien, Franklin, Kitsap, and Port Angeles. And in the home game rematch with Hale, we thumped them 12-2. It was a crushing defeat for a team that had been undefeated before that night. We went on to beat Port Angeles 6-5 in the semifinals and then faced Hale again in the finals. By then we had grown to 19 players. All were junior and seniors except for one freshman – Tyler’s younger brother Brian. All were from Tahoma except for one from Kentlake. And most had been friends for a decade or more. These men had formed a bond that does not easily or often occur within a sports season. It was truly a unique group of young men.

The championships that year were held at Mercer Island stadium. The B championship preceded the A championship, and we showed up with our Hawaiian shorts and blue jerseys. None of our helmets matched. None of our gloves matched. Much of our gear was torn, battered, and taped. Some guys played without cleats. Brian did not even have a full set of gear — he had to swap gloves with the player he was replacing on the field. But Nate had become quite a goalie in just two months. Tyler anchored our defense with DJ and Jon Clark from Kentlake. Brandon was our leading scorer and face-off man. On the wings we had guys like Danny Seger and Angelo Albonico. Adam Boender, Andy Scanlon, Josh Staudt, and Brian worked the attack end. That game was never in doubt. Maple Valley defeated Nathan Hale by a score of 9-6. No first year team prior to Maple Valley had ever won a championship. In fact, no first year team prior to MV had ever even had a winning season. But those young men did — going 11-1 and winning the state title.

The following year the league left us in Division B because we were graduating so many of our players. Tyler was among the graduates. But while in college that spring, he and DJ became my assistant coaches and helped lead us back for another playoff run for the title. That 2000 team swelled to 37 players (winning will do that to a program). We met Hale in the finals again. And once again we defeated them (this time in sudden death overtime) for our second state title. There with me at my side was Tyler Johnson. No one on the field was more excited with that second title than Tyler.

So for you players, when you pick up the stick this spring, take a moment and give thanks to Tyler Johnson and the others who helped get this program off the ground. They are a special group. They have earned the right to be respected and recognized for what they started that first week of March in the cold and rain. And Tyler was there from the beginning, with his smile, his quick wit, and his absolute determination to learn this great game and win. He made all who he touched better for knowing him. I will always think of him every time I put the whistle around my neck. He was my player, my captain, my assistant coach, and my good friend.

Coach Vern Smith


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