A gas station sign welcomed Heather Roberts to Yamhil.
A veteran coach at a new school, she’s been greeted by cameras and reporters at her basketball practices.
The 49-year-old Roberts has led girls at Ashland High and other prep programs around the state, and she’s guided women at NCAA Division III Southern Virginia.
But this new job at Yamhill-Carlton has captured headlines: Roberts is the first female varsity high school boys basketball coach in Oregon since the 1930s.
With all the excitement swirling around her, Roberts offers a simple reminder.
“It’s not about gender,” she says. “It’s about athletes.”
Roberts, who coached Southern Virginia the past four seasons, joins Genevieve Beaman as the only known woman to coach boys in Oregon. Beaman coached Thurston during the 1930s and guided the 1937-38 team to the state tournament, according to Eugene Register-Guard reports and articles by longtime sports writer Kenn Hess.
Roberts replaces Gary McCullough, who had run the program since 1997. Yamhill-Carlton has struggled, going 3-21 last winter. The Tigers haven’t advanced to the state tournament since 2007 and haven’t recorded a winning season since 2013-14. Yamhill-Carlton will drop to Class 3A next year and will play in a new gym expected to be finished by the late fall.
Roberts took the job May 24, met the team the next day and started practice May 29.
“I really like (my team),” says Robert, who will also become the dean of students at Yamhill-Carlton Intermediate School. “They work very hard. They’re very coachable. There aren’t any issues with me being a woman. It’s not really a woman/man thing. It’s more of a cultural shift because they’ve lost these last five years. One thing we can control is how hard we work. I want to instill that kind of attitude.”
Roberts was born in Corvallis, the oldest of three, and attended Wilson Elementary. Her mom Averil enrolled her in sports, and Roberts says she loved competing. She went to Oregon State women’s games and once had players autograph a popcorn box for her.
At Crescent Valley High, Roberts played basketball for Craig Ellingson. She wasn’t a standout, she says, but the lessons she learned were valuable.
“I felt like I contributed just as hard,” she says. “It was a good learning experience. And I also learned I needed to work harder.”
Roberts made the team at Lewis & Clark College in Portland before going on an 18-month church mission to Houston and transferring to OSU in Corvallis, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in human development and master’s in home economics education.
Ellingson became a mentor to Roberts, who assisted at Crescent Valley for three seasons.
“She is one of those kids, when she was a kid, she really had a passion for the sport,” Ellingson says.
In 1996, Ellingson told Roberts about a girls head coaching opening at Ashland. At the time, Roberts was an assistant at David Douglas High.
“When Ashland offered the job, they had two 6-foot-3 kids but hadn’t won too many games,” Roberts recalls. “They were willing to take a chance on a young coach so I decided to go ahead and go for it.”
That season, the Grizzlies finished 13-12 and advanced to the state playoffs for the first time in 12 years.
“That time in Ashland was a great time for me to grow as a coach,” Roberts recalls. “I was really fortunate. Volleyball was a big thing when I got there, so it was just a matter of getting kids to commit to playing basketball during basketball season. ... We had a vision and we went at it. It motivated us that we were picked to finish last (in a coaches preseason poll). We had a very, very competitive freshman named Chelsea Morgan. I think we lost our first eight games, including three games at a tournament.
“Chelsea started crying at the tournament. The kids stopped and looked at her and were like, ‘Oh, she really cares.’ That was a pivotal turning point. And we talked Sarah Peterson (the eventual conference player of the year), a 6-3 volleyball player, into playing her senior year. We had a good point guard, a freshman named Jenni Pippa, who had the right combination of competitiveness. We were tied with Eagle Point at the end of the league season and had a playoff. The gym was packed. That was the cool thing about Ashland — people would come out to the games.”
During her five-year career with the Grizzlies, Roberts had a record of 77-50 with five state playoff appearances and three state tournament berths. While there, she and husband Jason adopted three children.
“We owe a lot to coach Roberts,” Morgan says. “She pushed us places we didn’t think we could go. She was strict, she was tough but it really drove us. She made us better people.”
Adds Pippa: “To me, I couldn’t think of a better person to take on a role (coaching boys) and succeed. She’s just an awesome coach.”
Roberts’ best season in Ashland came in 1998-99, when the Grizzlies went 19-7, captured the Southern Oregon Conference title and claimed fifth at the state tournament.
“What those kids did was amazing,” says Roberts, who now plays with Morgan and Pippa on a city league team in Portland. “I think we ended up having five girls play DI basketball, two more play junior (college) basketball and one play DI volleyball.”
Roberts resigned to take over the girls program at Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego in 2001. With additional stops at Canby and Sprague, she’s tallied 266 career victories in 17 seasons, with 14 playoff appearances and six state tournament berths.
The Southern Virginia opportunity came about during a 2014 dinner in Buena Vista, Virginia, where her daughter Micah played tennis. Those two and Southern Virginia women’s tennis coach Deidra Dryden, who is also the senior athletics administrator, met for a meal.
“Deidra said there was an opening for a basketball coach,” Roberts recalls. “I like doing interviews but didn’t think much of it. I did it and two weeks later I had the job.”
The five-member Roberts family maintained their home in Canby while living in Virginia. The Knights went 12-13 in Roberts’ final year. Roberts says she’s always wanted her twin boys Moroni and Malachi to attend an Oregon high school, and both are set to enter eighth grade now. Beyond that, she’s always been one to take on a challenge.
“I decided I wanted to coach them, because they’ll be pretty good,” she says. “Last summer, anyone who would listen, I’d mention my interest in coaching boys. I wanted to normalize the process. I applied for another boys job but didn’t get a call back until September. I talked to them and asked the AD if they had any issue with me being a woman. They AD said no, and that they just don’t get candidates with a resume like mine.
“I targeted smaller schools that hadn’t done as well, and a school willing to think outside the box. I finished my season at Southern Virginia this past season. Then John Ogden, vice principal at Canby, called me to say Yamhill had an opening. I applied. There was a mutual interest. Once we finalized it, I told them, ‘This is gonna be kind of a big deal.’”
Ellingson wasn’t the least bit surprised when Roberts landed the role. Now he’s just looking on with pride, excited to see what the future holds.
“I think we could start seeing it more and more in all sports,” the AD at Crescent Valley says. “And Heather will certainly be a pioneer.”
Reach Dan Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org