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Gienger could become BHS’ winningest coach
Barring a complete meltdown by her girls’ team, Penny Gienger will walk off the court at West Seattle next Tuesday evening with her 300th Bainbridge High victory and the winningest basketball coach in the school’s history.
Her overall record stands at 297-141 after Wednesday’s victory at Blanchet, and the Spartans are favored against Rainier Beach tonight at home, tomorrow at Sequim and in Tuesday’s contest. Should the team stumble, Thursday’s home game with Chief Sealth is also very winnable.
By the end of the season, Gienger’s number of victories likely will surpass the win totals of legendary boys’ mentors Tom Paski (298, 1947-1970) and Dean Scherer (296, 1970-1993). Further burnishing her credentials is the fact that Gienger is currently in her 18th year at the Spartan helm, while both Paski and Scherer coached for 23 years.
Her stint includes seven state tournament appearances, including a championship in 1999 and two fourth-place finishes.
Her teams also have won five league titles (four Olympic League and one Metro League).
But the road hasn’t been without a few potholes for the intense Gienger, who leftafter her first year as BHS coach because of conflicts with parents. Fortunately for her, the players and BHS, she returned as head coach after a two-year hiatus.
Gienger took somewhat of a roundabout geographical route to reaching the milestone. She grew up in Tillamook, Ore., where she played basketball and ran the 3200 meters on the track team. She was named to the all-state basketball team as a senior.
She was a walk-on for the basketball team at the University of Oregon, and eventually wound up with a scholarship as she lettered all four years.
“I was a great practice player – I just wanted to play and run and stay in shape,” she said.
By the time she graduated in 1985, her career path had been set. Her father was a longtime teacher and coach, and from the time she was in high school Gienger knew that she wanted to mirror his career. While still at Oregon, she worked with the JV team at Marist High School in Eugene.
Then it was off to New Orleans, where she taught and coached at Isidore Newman School for three years. “I wanted to get out and see the world,” she said. “I didn’t know a soul there.”
In turn, the Big Easy taught her a valuable lesson.
“Those three years gave me an appreciation of the Northwest,” she said. “I was looking to come back, and Bainbridge had a job that fit.”
The job, which began in 1989, included teaching PE and taking over what had been a highly successful girls basketball program under Leigh Ann Charlston. In four years, Charlston’s teams won state titles in 1987 and 1988 and finished fourth in 1989.
Gienger’s first team went 19-8 and placed fourth in the 1990 state tournament. Gienger was named WesCo League coach of the year. But all was not well in Spartanland.
“The parents did not like me,” she said. “I did things differently.”
The upshot was a year-long break from the program. She continued to teach PE and also coached at Seattle University for a year. She returned to BHS as an assistant during the 1991-92 season, but realized she wanted to reclaim her old job.
“I didn’t like not being the head honcho,” she said. “I like to call the shots.”
She got her chance in the 1992-1993 season. While that team tied for second in WesCo, it didn’t do well in non-league play and the district tournament. The result was a 10-12 record, one of just three losing seasons Gienger has experienced as a coach.
Her first really good team was the 1997-1998 group, which won the Olympic League title with a 17-1 record and also emerged as District 3 champions.
But after winning their first game at state, the Spartans dropped the next two to finish the season with a 21-4 mark.
That set the table for the following year. Britt Themann, fully recovered from a knee injury that had sidelined her two years earlier, was the star of the team that once again won the Olympic League and District 3 titles, then overcame heavily favored Meadowdale to bring home the state championship.
The Seattle P-I named Gienger state coach of the year.
Her success, however, hasn’t silenced all the naysayers – who exist in every high school program – but overt criticism has been muted.
“The parents have warmed up to me or gotten used to me,” Gienger said. “The objective of the varsity program is to win, but not at all costs. Sometimes parents see things differently than I do, but most of them have been supportive.”
Seemingly, few find fault with Gienger’s support for her girls once the game is under way. Gienger stalks the sidelines with the intensity of a caged tiger, yelling at the officials and throwing up her hands in disbelief at some of the more outrageous calls.
“I’m just very emotional,” she said. “I have to vent. I did that as a player. It’s my duty to protect them and get the game to be fair. If my kids are getting hammered, then get called for touches, that’s not fair....not the game.”
Gienger said she’s not proud of the fact she usually gets called for a technical or two every year, but she has never been ejected.
“I don’t want not be able to coach the next game,” she said. “If I’m not there, it’s not fair to the kids.”
In her off time, Gienger likes to run, usually in the morning before school starts.
“I’d go nuts if I didn’t,” she said. “I’m strung pretty tight and running gives me a chance to clear my head.
“I’m also learning to play golf, which is completely against my personality. You have to slow down and take your time, not press and push. I’ll never be good, but it’s nice to walk for four hours in the fresh air.”
Looking back on her Spartan tenure, Gienger has fond memories of her state championship.
“It was an awesome experience,” Gienger said. “I’m pretty proud I’ve got [the title], and I’m proud of my players.”
She’s equally fond of her other teams.
“I’ve done some great things with teams that didn’t go to state,” she added. “I’ve put in a lot of time and energy. I really like the kids a lot. Hanging out with the kids, teaching players in the summer – those are the things you remember.”
Year by year record
* 4th in state tournament
** Won state tournament
*** To date