A Keen Style for the Fastpitch Hall of Fame
MAKING MEMORIES: Former W.F. West Coach Mike Keen Joining Washington State Fastpitch Coaches Association HOF Saturday
By Matt Baide
Back in May of 2017, you could find Mike Keen sitting on the W.F. West bench at Selah’s Carlon Park, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses.
It might not have been typical dugout attire, but Keen’s coaching wardrobe matched his coaching style — successful, if not too serious.
“I think the kids will tell you. We had a lot of fun,” Keen said. “Winning is fun.”
Keen’s easygoing coaching style led to over 300 wins, three state championships and a spot in the Washington State Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He’ll officially be inducted Saturday during a ceremony at noon at the Red Lion hotel in SeaTac.
Keen’s sideline adventures started in 1979 as a volunteer baseball coach. He started teaching at Chehalis Middle School in 1979, where he coached middle school football for the next 25 years with Jon Eklund and Paul Gelton. He was also playing in a softball league, where future assistant coach Kevin Zylstra sized him up as a fastpitch coach.
“I knew he was a good baseball player and thought he would be a perfect fit for program,” Zylstra said.
Keen’s first two children were girls, so that was a natural progression. He joined the Bearcat coaching staff in 1993 under Russ Lunders, who started the program.
When Lunders retired in 2003, Keen took over, and the Bearcats won a league title, but lost out in the district tournament a year after making the state finals.
“All we had to do was win one game at districts and lost them both,” Keen said. “Due to an injury, we had to move kids around. What I learned from that is that you have to plan for the unexpected, that’s what I did afterwards.”
It was the last time the Bearcats missed state. Over the next 14 years, they went 50-16 in the big dance and won state championships in 2012, 2015 and 2017.
“As you coach more, and we were successful, on one hand it became easier because they know what to expect, and so I guide them through practices and they knew what to do,” Keen said. “It was also a challenge that none of the girls wanted to be that team that broke the going-to-state streak, especially the seniors. They didn’t want their team not to go.”
Naturally, there were highlights along the way — like the 2011 state tournament. The Bearcats lost to West Valley, 10-5, in their opener, after officials declined to call the game during a storm. The Bearcats, irked, then 10-runned three teams and beat Centralia and Selah in high-scoring close games to finish third.
W.F. West came back in the 2012 season and won the title, the first of Keen’s head coaching career.
“We felt we got robbed. They came back with a little bit of vengeance on their mind,” Keen said. “That one was fun, but we 10-runned everybody that tournament too.”
The Bearcats went on to win state titles in 2015 and also in Keen’s final season in 2017.
Keen had 333 wins in 15 years and the Bearcats didn’t lose an Evergreen 2A Conference game from 2012 until after his retirement. His teams were also undefeated in District 4 tournament games from 2011 to 2017.
Even with all the tangible achievements, Keen’s greatest strength as a coach was his connection with the team.
“We were together for a long time. I think a lot of it was high expectations; we just knew we were going to do well year after year,” Zylstra said. “The players bought into that. It was self-perpetuating, year after year. It just happened. A lot of it had to do with Mike and his ability to make teams come together.”
Zylstra noted Keen’s ability to make the team feel like a family.
“There’s all the support that all the players gave to each other,” Zylstra said. “Like in any family, there’s bickering, but it pulls together when it counts. To do that year after year is really remarkable.”
Current Bearcat coach Caty Lieseke joined Keen’s staff in 2012, during her first year teaching at W.F. West. Keen approached the former college standout at a barbeque before the school year started and asked her to join the staff.
“I loved that he never took anything quite too seriously. We were there to compete and do well, but also there to have fun,” Lieseke said. “He was pulling practical jokes all throughout the season and he’s infamous for poetry. That was part of the program; Keen writes poems and they’re funny and good.”
Some of these pranks included coaches eating napkins and asking people to hold a flag that doesn’t exist during the national anthem.
“You never leave food alone around him,” Lieseke said.
Keen’s laid-back style helped foster the culture in the fastpitch program.
“Another rule we had was unless you had a really good reason not to, and you were cleared by a parent, you ride the bus home because you’re not going to remember how you played against Tumwater or Centralia, you’re going to remember the bus ride home and the fun things you did,” Keen said. “Don’t be in a hurry to grow up. Enjoy the moment, be in the moment, especially the last few years. There were some girls in there that were just hilarious. Practice was so much fun to go to.”
Keen retired in 2017, upon finding out he’d have to step down as a coach in order to officially retire as a teacher. Lieseke knew it was coming a few years before it happened, but she found out in a purely Keen fashion.
“He had talked to me and said, at the beginning of that season, ‘I think I’ve only got a couple more in me.’ I began mentally preparing, if this is something you want to do a couple years down the road,” Lieseke said. “We were in the parking lot and he said, ‘By the way, I think I’m done. You think you’re interested?’ That was his style.”
Zylstra was happy to see his friend go out on top, defeating Port Angeles 5-1 in the 2017 state title game.
“I was real happy for him. The fact that we won the state title in his last game is every coach’s ultimate dream,” Zylstra said. “It was more just happy for him for all the success that he’s had. I knew I was going to miss him, but I knew that Lieske would do a good job in his place and that things would keep rolling.”
Had he still been able to coach while retired, Keen said he would have stayed on one more year to see Kindra Davis, Ashlee Vadala and Olivia Dean graduate. He misses coaching, but has remained a fan and watched some games last season.
“Oh, I miss it, the interaction with the kids. I went to a couple league games and I kind of kept my distance. I went to state; that was really tough,” Keen said. “I do miss it but it gets easier to stay away as the years go by. It was a such a successful part of your life and you build so many memories, relationships with some coaches, kids. It’s tough.”
The team’s culture was established on playing softball while having fun.
“One was for them to remember why they’re playing the game. Play for it for fun, we preach that if you work hard and follow the rules and pick up your teammates that winning takes care of itself,” Keen said. “That was an atmosphere we really worked hard to breed. We told them at the beginning that what we see in practice is your best, that will determine playing time. They bought into that.”
Ask the people around him and they will confirm how much fun the team was having during those 15 years.
“It was a blast. The amount of laughter, every day, every practice, having fun all the time. Even at state, there’s always something to laugh about,” Lieseke said. “It really helped me step into this year and not take anything too seriously. It’s still a game and with his big success, he was able to step back and laugh at himself as funny things happened.”
Zylstra, who will be speaking at the Hall of Fame ceremony, echoed Lieseke’s assessment.
“It wasn’t a job. It was fun every day. I think just all the teasing, the pranks, stuff that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about it stuff that really stays with you,” Zylstra said. “Just all the goofing around that we do, it was such a special job. I have all sorts of funny stories that come to mind when I think about coaching with Mike.”
W.F. West athletic director Jeff Johnson will also be speaking before Keen speaks at the ceremony. With three state championship banners hanging in the gym and numerous league and district titles, Keen is certainly deserving of being in the Hall of Fame.
He wanted to thank his assistants over the years, including Jenny Taylor, Lori Davies, Stacie McCracken, Tara Arsanto, Tim Kindle, Ken Gray, Jon Eklund, Paul Gelton, Zylstra and Lieseke. He also wanted to thank his wife Dennina for her support.
On Saturday, Keen will be able to reflect on his time coaching and look back on some memories with former players and coaches. While that may include some memories of big wins and great games, it’s the people that make it fun. After all, Keen noted, it’s just a game.
“Sometimes it’s a grind. That’s the challenge on me, you have to have good bad days. There are days where the kids have broke up with their boyfriend or they flunked the test or whatever,” Keen said. “We have to put that in a separate compartment. Let’s escape all that garbage that’s going on in our lives and play and have fun and do things.”