Cooper and Stephens move on

"The Federal Way school district lost two of its most successful coaches this week when Decatur's Keith Cooper and Thomas Jefferson's John Stephens separately announced they'd taken new jobs.Cooper, who has coached the Gator boys basketball team for five seasons, is heading to Central Washington University to become an assistant coach.Stephens, who recently finished his second season coaching the Raider boys baseball team, accepted a teaching position at Gig Harbor High School.It's a good opportunity for me. I wanted to get back coaching in college, Cooper said. It's really hard to get a college job out of high school.Cooper amassed a 75-54 record at Decatur and earned South Puget Sound League South Division Coach of the Year honors after the 1998-99 season. The Gators qualified for the West Central District tournament three times under Cooper. Decatur compiled a 9-4 record at districts and advanced to state all three times in districts.The Gators finished the regular season 14-7 in Cooper's first season at Decatur in 1996. Decatur went on to win the school's only district championship. All-state player Quincy Wilder led the Gators to their only state placing - second - that season.It took awhile for some of those kids to buy into the roles, Cooper said. Once they bought into them, they were a great team to watch.Each of the following four years, Decatur seemed to return with less experience. Each year, however, another player stepped up to take command of the team. Aaron Bellessa went from averaging just over four points a game as a junior to nearly 20 as a senior three seasons back. Chad Meyer went from just more than one point to more than 17.I feel good what we've done the five years that we've been here, Cooper said. Every year we've been labeled the team that overachieved. I don't know what more a coach could hope for.This past season, the Gators won five games late in the season to squeeze into the SPSL playoffs. Decatur lost in a loser-out game to Kentlake.It's never an easy decision to leave anywhere, Cooper said. I've always enjoyed the kids that we've had. We did it and I think we were successful and we did it right.Decatur Athletic Director Greg Flynn thinks he did. He's done an amazing job and he does it the right way, Flynn said. His kids are good students and we never have any eligibility problems.Cooper will move to Ellensberg with his wife, Linda, but she will keep her nursing job at St. Joseph Hospital in Tacoma.At Central Washington, Cooper will coach alongside his longtime friend, Wildcat head coach Greg Sparling.It's a chance to get into an extremely rich basketball tradition, Cooper said. It's a very comfortable fit for me. That was important for me.Stephens said his move is strictly a family decision.Stephens said he wanted to spend more time with his wife, Andria, son, Matthew, 4, and daughter, Allie, 2. His current situation commuting 45 minutes each way to Puyallup and teaching at Jefferson limits his family time.Whenever I'm doing something at school, I never have time to go home so I don't see the kids that day, he said. I already missed a T-ball game because of my involvement.The drawback of the move is that all the Gig Harbor baseball coaching positions are currently filled. Stephens, who coached junior varsity basketball at Jefferson before becoming the baseball coach, said the Gig Harbor administrators told him they would try to find a coaching position for him.It's the biggest fear I have. I don't want to take too much time off from coaching, Stephens said. I love it. I love working with the kids.Under Stephens, the Raiders played an exciting brand of baseball, often coming from behind to win games. Jefferson placed second in the SPSL South Division each of the past two seasons. Stephens led the Raiders to a combined 21-9 record in that span.I'm leaving a great program behind, Stephens said. We have a lot of good quality kids coming back. There' s a lot of great things in the future for TJ."

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