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Heggenes earns his night

The walls in his office in the boys locker room at South Whidbey High School contain many pictures and mementos from Mick Heggenes
The walls in his office in the boys locker room at South Whidbey High School contain many pictures and mementos from Mick Heggenes' 19 years as head coach of the football team. He will be honored Friday before and during the game against Lynden Christian.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

For longtime fans of South Whidbey High School football, a familiar face has been missing on the sidelines this year.

Coach Mick Heggenes is not there pacing the chalk line, exhorting his players, telling his assistants what plays to call, and arguing with the referees, as he was prone to do on occasion.

Heggenes retired after the 2000 season, ending a 19-year tenure as head coach. This Friday night, his contributions will be honored as the high school hosts Mick Heggenes Night, beginning at 5 p.m. in the New Commons. Fittingly, the night includes a Falcon football game at Waterman Field, where Heggenes spent so many hours under the bright lights.

Heggenes brings the same high spirits to his own night as he brought to the football field every Friday during 19 fall seasons. He said he’s honored, but also a bit suspicious of his many friends, some of whom have been known to pull a practical joke or two.

“I’m not sure what they’ve got up their sleeve,” he said warily.

Heggenes took over the Falcons’ head coaching job in 1983, filling the shoes of local coaching legend Jim Leierer, who held the position the previous 30 years. Leierer, known simply as Coach, spent all 19 years at Heggenes’ side, serving as a volunteer assistant.

Heggenes was not new to South Whidbey when he took the head coaching job. He has deep roots on the island, graduating from Langley High School in 1969, and came back after college to teach and be an assistant coach to Leierer. He married his high school sweetheart, Christy Anderson. There are roads on South Whidbey named after both of their families.

Falcon football had its ups and downs prior to 1983. Coach Leierer took the team to the state finals in 1979, the next few years were also solid, but in ‘81 a downturn occurred.

But by 1983 the Falcons were again showing signs of life.

“I was handed a group of good athletes,” Heggenes said last week from his high school office in the boys locker room. At 50, he has a few years of teaching left in him. “It started to turn around.”

Newcomers to the island or young people who have watched football only over the past decade never saw the glory years of Coach Heggenes’ reign. During the 1980s and early ’90s the Falcons were rated among the state’s top Class A teams, and either won or finished second in the Cascade Conference each year. The last great year was 1992, when the Falcons advanced to the state quarterfinals.

The most memorable year of all was 1985, when the Falcons went undefeated through the quarterfinals, advancing to the semifinals in the Tacoma Dome on Thanksgiving Day.

“That was our most talented team, no question,” Heggenes recalled. With the “three Jeffs” backfield of quarterback Jeff Hanson, running back Jeff Alexander and bruising fullback Jeff Kohlwes, the Falcons were an offensive machine.

“I told them to enjoy this, it might never happen again,” Heggenes said. As it turned out, he was more prophetic than he wanted to be. The Falcons never again played under a dome.

The Falcons would likely have won the 1985 Tacoma Dome battle had quarterback Hanson not broken his leg after a long gain early in the first quarter. Even then, the Falcons had a chance to win, but a fullback plunge by Kohlwes late in the contest fell inches short of the goal line.

The same thing happened in 1992, when the Falcons made the state quarterfinal game. Yancy Salenus, described by Heggenes as “one of our all-time best,” was the fullback this time. And Heggenes gave him the ball on the deciding play. Like Kohlwes in 1985, the opponent knew the play was coming and stopped it cold.

“I’d still give it to him again,” Heggenes said with a laugh, referring to both Kohlwes and Salenjus. “Whether the fans liked it or not they knew our style of play — it was going to be smash mouth.”

Heggenes chuckles as he recalls one of his favorite quarterbacks, Chris Larson, who would occasionally point to the right tackle before calling the signals and tell the opponents, “It’s going right here, see if you can stop us.”

“The other coaches thought it was a trick play if we ran it to the left,” Heggenes said.

South Whidbey never had a losing season until 1993. Then the school started growing, and the Falcons found themselves pitted against much larger AA and AAA schools.

The Falcons didn’t have winning seasons during those years, and they’re still struggling to regain competitiveness under new Coach Mark Hodson.

But to Coach Heggenes, football was more than winning and losing. He enjoyed the companionship of his coaches and players, annually treating the team to a pre-season camp in Twisp. He taught the kids a winning attitude, regardless of the score.

“When we walked out of the locker room we never expected to lose,” he said.

Many of his fondest memories occurred off the field: The time the bus lost its brakes coming down Washington Pass; the time half his starting lineup confessed to throwing grapes at a bicyclist and had to sit out the season’s first game; the time the bus broke down on I-5 after the “ice bowl” win in Centralia in 1985; their first AA game, when the opposition from Mountlake Terrace arrived in two huge buses; and two games that were televised in the Puget Sound area.

And all those years, Heggenes had Coach Leierer by his side, helping to exhort the players.

“He’s such a fine motivator. He can still make the hair stand up on the back of my neck and get me ready to go,” he said. “He’s like a father to so many of us.”

Heggenes played football at Langley High and Western Washington University. His dad, Leif Heggenes, passed away during one of his son’s games in Bellingham.

“At halftime he wasn’t feeling well. He went for a snack and never came back. I found out after the game I’d lost my dad. It was very traumatic,” Heggenes said. His mother, Ruth Anderson Heggenes, is still alive. “She taught us stability and moral values,” he said.

Mick and Christy have four grown children, Jason, Joshua, Jacob and Amy, and he credits Christy with his success.

“She’s my friend, my counselor and my corrections officer,” he said, unable, as usual, to avoid a joke.

As Heggenes talks, students keep pounding on his door to ask for locker keys, tape or other equipment.

Although he’s retired from football coaching, he’s still a popular figure at the high school, where he’s in his element.

“There are so many memories, so many emotional ups and downs. I’ve led a blessed life,” he said. “I’d do the same thing again.”

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