Steve Irons’ four-year run as head men’s basketball coach at Walla Walla Community College — from 1989-90 to 1992-93 — was one pleasing to the eyes of Warrior Nation.
Eighty-six wins, including three 20-win seasons.
Three appearances in the NWAACC Tournament.
A pair of fourth-place finishes.
One Eastern Region title.
Irons, currently a Distinguished Professor of Math at the College of Southern Idaho, credits former WWCC coach Art Wilmore and ex-vice president Ron Langrell for their kinship as he pursued the counseling and coaching posts.
The fifth coach in Walla Walla’s history was an assistant coach at CSI before coming to Walla Walla. He recalled getting to know Wilmore when the Warriors and Golden Eagles tangled on the court.
“I had a good relationship with Art,” Irons said. “He was at the top of the list as a person, coach, and in terms of ethics. I’ve always considered him a friend.
“When I visited (the campus), I walked into the (Dietrich Dome) and that sold me in a millisecond,” Irons said.
Irons said his transition was made easier because of relationships commenced with a group of former colleagues — including Dr. Steve Van Ausdle, athletic director Jerry Anhorn, football coach Mike Levens, baseball coach Ken Johnson, and counselor Dick Cook.
The first season of the Irons’ era ended 18-10 after a playoff loss to Big Bend.
“I got the job late, but Art had the team recruited,” Irons said of the club that featured Blaze Burnham, Chris Ehlis, Frank Dearmon and former Wa-Hi star Ricky Wilson. “All I added were walk-ons.
“It was a transitional year as much for me as it was for the players,” Irons said. “In the middle of the year, we were struggling and Frank Dearmon told me he believed in what we were doing. It was a pivotal moment.
“I look back on it fondly — getting players to buy in,” Irons said.
In 1990-91, Wilson was joined by the likes of Gonzaga Prep star Hugh Stephens, and Whitman County standouts Craig Brantner and Jeremy Brandt.
“We had Ricky to build around,” Irons said. “I was very fortunate that I was able to get that recruiting class in.”
Regular-season highlights included battles with East foes Columbia Basin and Big Bend, and a victory over North Idaho, Irons said.
A playoff triumph over Big Bend resulted in an NWAACC berth.
The Warriors dropped their first NWAACC tournament game to Lower Columbia before toppling Everett and Edmonds to place fourth.
“I felt like we were peaking at the right time going into the tournament,” Irons said. “I liked our chances. Teams that can come back from an opening-round loss? That showed the character of our team.
“That was a springboard for the rest of my career,” Irons said of the 24-and-7 campaign. “Recruiting fell into place. It validated the program.”
Hermiston graduate Todd Spike, Pete Cook, and ex-McLoughlin guard Kevin Perry joined WWCC the following year.
“We felt we had a good team,” Irons said. “We had a lot of games that were tight and competitive.”
Walla Walla finished fourth in the East with a 7-5 record and had to win two divisional playoff games on the road to reach the NWAACC Tournament.
The seemingly unthinkable was realized.
The Warriors knocked off regular-season champion Spokane and beat Wenatchee Valley at the buzzer.
In the latter win, Perry stole an inbounds pass at mid-court and drove for a lay-in with a minute-and a half left and Stephens hit a short jumper as time ran out to cap the nail-biting contest.
“Our sophomore leadership paid off at the end of the year,” Irons said.
WWCC lost to Lane in its opening NWAACC Tournament game, then humbled Highline and Grays Harbor to complete its second straight fourth-place finish.
“There was a little frustration,” Irons said after the Lane loss. “It showed how much it meant to everybody. Special days. Great people.”
Spook Victor and Michael Greene were among the talented athletes that came on board for Irons’ last season at Walla Walla.
“Every year, we got a little more talented,” Irons said. “By the fourth year, we were the hunted instead of the hunting. We were a team to be reckoned with.
“Other teams were shooting for us now,” Irons said. “That speaks highly for that team.”
The 1992-93 squad ended the regular season on a seven-game winning streak and at the top of the East standings. But after splitting two region playoff games, the Warriors went two-and-out in the NWAACC Tournament.
“That (winning streak) was a great stretch,” Irons said. “It comes back to players that bought in. The (region crown) was more of an indicator about that team than the tournament results.”
A chance for Irons to return to Southern Idaho occurred shortly after the 92-93 season.
Irons said he looks back at his Walla Walla experience with fond memories.
His bonds with assistant coaches Mike Michels and Darren Gibson, the backing from football and baseball players that attended home and away games, and a band of junior Warrior cheerleaders — two of which were his then young daughters — that lent their support.
“(Current coach) Jeff Reinland ( who has been at the helm for two decades-plus) replaced me and that shows what a great place it is,” Irons said. “We’ve stayed in touch over the years. I still feel the connection.
“The community piece was a big part of our program,” Irons said. “I cherish all the relationships. I was very fortunate to be in that situation.”
Roy Elia can be reached at email@example.com.