As his final Monday class dispersed from his classroom, Doug Diehl’s students walked by the whiteboard adorned with some of his proudest accomplishments as head coach of the Natrona County Fillies.
Diehl decided at the end of last season to step down as head coach. In a story published Thursday in the Star-Tribune, Diehl explained the mounting factors that led him to the decision.
Diehl pulled down an overturned stool and glanced over at the whiteboard periodically. He read off the list of 13 former Fillies who went on to play college basketball, remarking how he’d like to make an all-star team out of the arranged names. A list of program records and notable accomplishments under Diehl were marked just off to the side.
His prideful tone looking back through seven-year old box scores underlined his apprehensive beginnings. He grew up the son and nephew of divorced coaches with health problems.
“So I knew the one thing for sure was that I sure as hell wasn’t going to coach,” Diehl remembered.
But on his way out of interviewing for a teaching job he was asked if he would be interested in coaching the sophomore girls team.
“You’re going to give me a job?” he responded.
He spent the next 15 years coaching either seventh, eighth, sophomore or junior varsity teams. He then spent two years at nationally relevant Kirtland Central in New Mexico, where he learned to establish a program.
Diehl then returned to Natrona County as head coach, where he put more emphasis on player development — which would become his signature strength. He had a standing offer with players to continue to work with them as long as they wanted after practice. Few took him up on that offer.
The first was Kaylee Johnson.
“Heads above anyone else,” Diehl said. “She’d come in, lace up, be busting through her post moves and be dripping with sweat before her teammates were laced up. She worked hard. In the weight room, she never took a break, she just churned and burned.”
Johnson, the three-time Gatorade Player of the Year, just finished her final year of eligibility at Stanford. She will graduate in May with a degree in political science and a law-firm internship in line.
“Kaylee Johnson was going to do what she wanted no matter what,” Diehl said. “Nobody was going to keep her from doing anything she wanted.”
Stephanie Lee, who also took Diehl up on his offer of after-practice drills, also played on the same team as Johnson. It was there that she developed the goal of baiting the opponent into believing she was left-handed, only to score on a drop-step going opposite.
Lee went on to set the Northern Colorado scoring record before playing professionally for a season in Germany.
“Those two kids stand out as far as the relationships you look to build,” Diehl said. “That’s who I spent the most hours with.”
Diehl also coached Natrona County alumnae Lauren Taubert, who now runs track at Kansas State. Taubert didn’t stand out on the court, averaging just 4.4 points per game her junior year, but her determination is what Diehl remembers.
“She was one of the best competitors I ever worked with,” he said. “Broke my heart when she did the leg injury and didn’t play her senior year.”
Diehl also singled out former player Cheyanne Balster. She had no interest in playing basketball her sophomore year but Diehl relentlessly recruited her anyway. He remembered that she threatened to quit four separate times while also fighting and skipping class.
She went on to be a two-year starter at Casper College, completed her playing career at Black Hills State and is now enrolled at grad school while working three blocks away from Diehl.
Then there’s current senior Kristy Dick, who Diehl admired for her work ethic while she was torn between volleyball and basketball. Dick will go on to play college volleyball despite standing in the top 10 in program history in points, rebounds, steals, blocks and assists — the only player at NC to ever do so in five categories.
Diehl also recalled Chelsea Combe, who he described as “tough as nails.” She returned to Natrona County High School this year, having long since graduated, just to stop in and check on Diehl. They exchanged hugs.
“The scariest part of what I chose to do was missing out on those relationships,” Diehl said. “Being called coach makes me prouder than anything.”
Nearly three decades after he put his own ambivalence for coaching to the test, he hopes to be remembered as a coach. He stays in contact with all those players, as well as college coaches.
He longs for the days of taking his brother fishing in Montana, or remembering the weeks-long trip on the Kanetkok River in Alaska — where he’s been at his most relaxed. Not to mention time with his grandchildren, who he keeps updated on through the family’s shared photo album.
Diehl will have time for all of that upon full retirement in 2020. In the meantime, he’ll take pride in the “Hey, coach!” he repeatedly hears in the hallway.