Walla Walla High School sports fans can recognize two names among the 50 listed as Coach of the Year in prep boys track, state-by-state, from the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).
Of course, Blue Devils fans know Eric Hisaw, the Coach of the Year for Washington.
Hisaw coached the Wa-Hi boys team to the 2019 state championship with individual titles from both Jared McAlvey in the 300 hurdles and Patrick Utschinski in discus.
But the Coach of the Year list also includes Wa-Hi alumn Craig Mettler (Class of 2004) for the state of Montana.
Now in the city of Missoula, teaching Health Enhancement at Sentinel High School, the former three-sport Blue Devil coached Spartan boys track to a 2019 state championship with five individual titles.
“That’s pretty unbelievable,” Hisaw said. “What a shock, for two Walla Walla track coaches to get recognized in the top 50 in the nation. Craig was a great thrower for us. And then he goes on to play college football at Montana, and now he’s got a great track program in Missoula. He’s done a great job over there.”
Longtime football fans here should be familiar with Mettler as a former Blue Devils captain and an All-Big Nine Conference lineman who went on to start at the University of Montana.
Local basketball followers might also remember the 6-foot-4, 240-pound all-conference Blue Devils forward.
And some folks might recall seeing him on the track here.
Hisaw was already coaching track while Mettler was here, though he was in charge of the girls team with Harvey Wellington directing the boys.
Mettler competed in shot put, javelin and high jump.
The name Mettler may be forever cemented in Wa-Hi track history, but really, that is Aaron (Craig’s younger brother) who was the 2006 state javelin champ.
Craig, on the other hand, focused more on football and basketball while at Wa-Hi.
“I didn’t take track as seriously as the other sports I was in,” Craig chuckled. “I laugh about that now. I’ve made sort of a paradigm shift where you get more involved in something and it changes how you prioritize things. Now, track is the one sport I believe is best for kids.”
The shift has been such that Mettler chose to step aside this year as an assistant on the football coaching staff.
Mettler just completed his 11th year at Sentinel High — the last four in charge of the track program — and is actually a two-time USTFCCCA Coach of the Year for the state of Montana.
Last season, Mettler was the Coach of the Year for girls track.
The Sentinel girls team won its second straight state championship in 2018, and though the Spartan boys captured a team trophy this year, the girls still brought home three individual titles.
“You’ve got to have good kids to do something like this, and we’ve had that the last few years,” Mettler said. “It’s actually pretty phenomenal, all these really talented kids. It’s been quite a ride for me. I came in at a good time.”
Mettler still thinks fondly of his youth in Walla Walla.
Though born in Lewiston, he was about two years old when the Mettlers moved here.
His parents and his older brother still live here.
“It’s always a lot of fun to come back home every once in a while, and catch up with folks in town,” Craig said. “Walla Walla was one great place to grow up in, and especially at that time. We had a lot of classes of phenomenal athletes (at Wa-Hi) — not just one big year, but a handful of them. One after another.
“I remember when I was a sophomore, our seniors were strong,” he added. “And my junior year, we had a strong senior class. We had a really good run of these.”
Mettler starred on the gridiron here.
As both a junior and a senior at Wa-Hi, he received the annual Victor Duane Weitz Memorial honoring the most outstanding Blue Devil lineman.
“The Big Nine had to go through Walla Walla,” Mettler said. “We were quite a program for other schools to go up against. I was fortunate to grow up in that. Walla Walla definitely left an impression on me at a formative time in my life.”
Mettler went on to shine at the University of Montana defensive line.
In 49 games over four seasons, Mettler tallied 166 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, nine pass breakups, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, one interception and a blocked kick.
Mettler began teaching, and coaching, in Missoula County soon after graduating from the Montana in 2009 with a bachelor’s in Health Enhancement.
In 2015, Mettler earned his master’s from the University of Montana in Educational Leadership.
As a Class AA school with about 1,200 students, Sentinel competes among the biggest in Montana.
But with three AA schools in Missoula, they are in the bottom third of AA enrollments (Bozeman has almost 1,000 more kids, and Billings schools are up there, too).
Yet, the Sentinel boys and girls — 168 of them all together on the track roster this year — have combined to dominate the state championships the last three years.
“That says a lot about our kids,” Mettler said.