COQUILLE — Perhaps one feeling most surrounds the 1977 Coquille girls basketball team.
It was an uncertain season, a fun season, a historic season. But George Johnson, the coach of that ’77 Red Devils squad, thinks about what could have been.
“I wish we would’ve done better at the state tournament,” Johnson said. “But I was proud of ‘em.
Let’s jump back to the beginning, where a fateful early decision acted as foreshadowing for events to come.
The girls basketball program, which had started in 1973 and advanced to the first state tournament sanctioned by OSAA in 1976, was in jeopardy of dissolving because the previous coach had retired and another one had not been found.
In stepped Johnson, who was principal at Lincoln Elementary School, to lead the team. He, with approval from his wife, of course, decided to take on the extra work for one season. He said he was lucky the girls team could only practice in the evening after class was out.
The Red Devils started slowly, as they held their first practice just a few days prior to their first game.
“Our first game was with North Bend,” Johnson said. “And we managed to win it. I don’t know how we ever won. It was a struggle. And from then on, we got things put together.”
The Red Devils caught fire using a fast-paced style with a collection of fundamentally-sound players. Anchored by double-double machine Tracie Phipps and junior guard Shawn Ellis, Coquille cruised through the Sunset Conference schedule, losing just one game to Pacific, and into the state tournament at Marshfield.
“They were a group of girls that I had had a lot of them in grade school, and they played basketball in grade school,” Johnson said. “So they were well-coached and (good) fundamentally.”
They had to adjust to their coach, though.
"He was kind of different," Ellis said. "We had always had women's coaches before. He was kind of an old-school coach."
"You had to work hard for George," Tracy Brugnoli said.
Some players didn't like the style at first, while others thrived, Ellis said.
"I responded to it," she said.
Brugnoli, too, enjoyed playing for Johnson.
"George was an excellent coach," said Brugnoli. "We knew we were in good hands."
And the Red Devils responded with the strong season.
"I think we had a great team," Brugnoli said. "We had a lot of fun."
They did everything but finish the tournament well.
The first game of the tournament, Coquille ran up against Madras, the top team in the state. The White Buffaloes were led by Kim Manion, a guard who averaged 20 points, six rebounds and seven assists per game, and Barbara Earl, who turned in a double-double every night at 13 points and 15 rebounds.
Johnson remembered Madras as a quality team that was hard to stop. The World Sports Editor Bill Hixon wrote that Madras forced Coquille into too many adjustments and eventually pushed the Red Devils too far from their intended style.
Madras switched between zone and man defenses consistently, keeping the Red Devils off balance enough to hold an advantage. Even still, the score was tied at 47 with 30 seconds left before Madras won 50-47.
Madras beat Yamhill-Carlton to earn its spot in the championship game and ultimately beat Rogue River 43-41 for the title.
“They were really good players,” Johnson said of Madras. “They were quick and fast. They had a couple of Indian girls that played guard. That were really good.
“We knew who their high scorers were, and we cut them down pretty good. But they got us in the end.”
The frustrating thing for Johnson — a what-could-have-been moment — came after the game against Madras. Phipps told Johnson that she was just so tired during the game, that she didn’t have any energy. Johnson, too, noticed Phipps’ lack of usual vigor in her play. The key center wasn’t rebounding the way she had all season. Johnson claimed she averaged 15 rebounds a game.
It was later learned that Phipps donated blood earlier in the week, rightly thinking she was doing the right thing. However, she didn’t understand it takes time for the body to regenerate that much blood, and that her performance might be affected later on.
“She thought she was doing something good, and she was,” Johnson said. “But it takes a week to get back from that. She played on Wednesday, gave blood on Monday and just didn’t have it.”
La Salle ended up beating Coquille 61-45 in the consolation semifinals and then beat Newport for the consolation title.
Ellis was named to the all-tournament second team and, as one of many returning players, expected another run the following year.
But the school board remembered Johnson’s coaching pledge. It was for one year — the 1976-77 season— and it held the principal-coach to that. Another coach was hired and the next year and Myrtle Point edged Coquille for the Sunset Conference bid to the state tournament, denying the Red Devils a trip back.
"They had a pretty good team," Ellis recalled of the Bobcats, remembering the Red Devils lost a tiebreaker game to Myrtle Point at Bandon. "We didn't get to go (to state)."
It was more than 20 years before Coquille made the final site again.
Johnson lamented the turn of events even while smiling fondly about the time. He’ll see the players who still live around from time to time, and they’ll rib him about not sticking around another year to see it through.
“They were really good players, and they hired some woman and it was a disaster,” Johnson said. “They never won the league. They never went to state. They’ve never let me forget that. Every time I see them they say, ‘You let us down.’ And I probably should have taken them one more year. But I didn’t, and that was the way it was.”
After high school, the players scattered to different areas, Brugnoli said.
"I left Coquille for Portland immediately after I graduated," she said. "Nobody from the team went the direction I did."
Most of them will be back Saturday night, along with Johnson, when Coquille's squad is honored during halftime of the girls championship game.
"I'm really looking forward to seeing them," Brugnoli said.