Distinguished high school career ends with trip to playoffs
Ed Smith and his wife, Kitty, lived in the Methow Valley for many years before he was finally persuaded to take on what was likely his last high school basketball coaching job. But once Smith took over as coach of the Liberty Bell High School girls’ varsity basketball team, he made the most of it. The Lady Lions advanced to post-season play in three of the past four years since Smith took over in the 2014-15 season.
Smith announced recently that he and Kitty are moving to Sequim. He coached his last game on Liberty Bell’s home court on Feb. 3, a 41-22 win over Manson. The Smiths’ three daughters and two granddaughters attended that game.
Last weekend, the Lady Lions’ 2017-18 season ended with a 61-41 loss to archrival Brewster in District 5/6 2B tournament (see related story, this page), closing out Smith’s Liberty Bell coaching career.
Smith was a successful boys’ basketball coach at a much larger school before moving to the Methow Valley in the late 1990s. He coached for 25 years on the west side, including the boys’ sophomore and varsity teams at Kent-Meridian High School. Before taking over as head coach of the girls’ squad at Liberty Bell, succeeding Deed Fink, he was a scout and volunteer assistant coach.
Smith started his college playing career at Grays Harbor Community College and finished at Central Washington University, whose strong teams made regular post-season appearances. At Central, Smith played with all-American Mel Cox, under legendary coach Dean Nicholson. In two seasons (1964-65 and 1965-66), Smith averaged 10.7 points per game and was an 84 percent free-throw shooter — which may explain his frustration at watching his players miss foul shots.
After graduating from Central, Smith started his high school coaching career at Chelan, where he was an assistant basketball coach and assistant football coach. He was teaching sixth grade at the time. When a job opened up in the Kent School District that utilized Smith’s college training, he became a P.E. teacher at two elementary schools.
He also became the coach of the sophomore basketball team at Kent-Meridian, where he first encountered Rick Northcott — who Smith recalls as a “skinny kid” who didn’t look promising at first. But Smith gave Northcott an opportunity, and it paid off.
After coaching the sophs for four years, including an undefeated season, Smith moved up to head coach of the varsity. Northcott played two more years for Smith as a point guard, on what he described as “some pretty good teams.”
Smith says Northcott was one of the best ball-handling guards he ever coached. Even when Northcott sprouted from 5 feet 9 inches to over 6 feet in the course of a summer in high school, Smith kept him at the point, where his skills could be best utilized.
“That group of kids is still real close,” Smith said.
Rick Northcott later moved to the Methow to rejoin the valley’s extended Northcott clan. Northcott, a contractor, went on to become a longtime Winthrop Town Council member who finished his tenure as the town’s mayor.
Northcott recalls Smith as a strong motivator who practiced a positive approach to coaching — but with constant encouragement to keep improving. Smith’s message, Northcott said, was “do more, play better.
“He was quite a mentor,” Northcott said of Smith. “He was an easy coach to play for.”
Smith was always an even-keeled coach, Northcott said, except on one memorable occasion. Kent-Meridian was struggling against a team it should have been beating handily. Smith unexpectedly went off on an official over a questionable call, and drew a technical foul. His players had never seen anything like it.
“It was the only time I ever recalled him raising his voice,” Northcott said. Kent-Meridian immediately blew out to a big lead and won the game.
Smith acknowledges that he was indeed trying to get a technical — although he had to goad the official to “T” him.
Smith was head coach at Kent-Meridian from 1972-1981. He then moved to Kentwood High School because his daughters were playing at Kent-Meridian and “I gave up coaching to watch them.” His daughter Kristi went on to become an All-American and all-time leading scorer at Portland State University, where her jersey number was retired.
Smith did coach golf at Kentwood — where two of his charges were Rick Northcott’s son and daughter. The team won several district championships, although Smith cheerfully notes that the team was so good that “my job was to get them to the course on time.”
The Methow move
Smith said he was familiar with the Methow Valley from hunting trips and vacations with his family.
When Rick Northcott was a senior at Kent-Meridian, his parents were operating a motel in the Methow Valley. At Christmas break, the entire varsity basketball team traveled to the Methow and stayed at the Northcotts’ motel. The kids learned a lot about winter activities, Smith said, and some had not seen snow before.
The Smiths started looking for retirement property in the late 1980s, originally intending to settle near salt water. But “everything we liked we couldn’t afford, and everything we could afford we didn’t like,” he said. A friend of the family bought property on Libby Creek, and the Smiths camped there. “We decided it wouldn’t be a bad place to be,” Smith said.
With the help of a local real estate agent, the Smiths found a property on Harrier Hill Road. Over several years, Smith built a home there himself. The Smiths moved to the valley in 1998, and spent some time as caretakers at Moccasin Lake Ranch. For a couple of years, Smith went back to Kent on a temporary teaching contract, where he team-taught with another of his daughters.
A friend who Smith worked with in Kent purchased a lot near the Smiths’ Methow property, and Smith helped him build a house. That led to a foray into the local construction and remodeling business. But when Kitty had a stroke in 2009, Ed gave up construction.
Meanwhile, he was being lured back into coaching, at first as a scout for then-coach Aaron Burkhart. Smith also helped coaches Ash Court and Deed Fink before taking over the head coaching job for the Lady Lions.
For the seniors
Smith said that the Sequim move had been contemplated but he wanted to stay in the valley long enough to coach this year’s five seniors.
“There are no seniors next year, so it’s a clean slate,” he said.
Smith said he is in regular contact with many of his ex-players, and expects that will continue.
“I absolutely love the valley and the people, and the support we get,” Smith said. He noted that local businesses have also been particularly supportive.
And, he said, “Methow Valley parents have done an excellent job of raising these young ladies.”
Chase Rost, the school district’s sports and activities director, said the search for a new head coach will begin soon.