The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Jaryd Cline
Sports Editor 

Wishram reaping in athletic/academic success

Once struggling academically, athletics and grades go hand in hand now at Wishram



Wishram athletic director Tye Churchwell

A good sized group of kids run up and down the small gym in the Wishram Elementary and High School, getting in a quick game of hoops during the lunch period before returning to class.

The gym, said Wishram athletic director Tye Churchwell, opens most days before and after school, during lunch and sometimes on weekends, giving the kids something to do in the small town of 342 people nestled alongside the Columbia River in between Goldendale and Lyle near the historic Celilo Falls.

"You drive through Wishram, one of the things you ask yourself is 'I wonder what kids do here after school?'" Churchwell said. "Do they have a skate park to go to? Nope. Do they have an athletic club to go to? Nope. Do they have a video arcade or even a store to hang out at? Nope."

There certainly isn't much to do at all, much less to do than in Goldendale even, but over the last 15 years or so in Wishram, athletics have become a huge part of the changing culture after being nearly nonexistent in the quaint town.

"So that's what they have. They have these sports to get tied into," Churchwell added.

Now, athletic participation is at an all-time high in Wishram. It also has a direct correlation to the increasing levels of academic success that the school has recently seen.

At a statewide level, according to the State of Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, there were 1,088,959 students attending Washington state public schools as of October 2015 while another survey conducted by The National Federation of High School Associations found there were 160,245 student athletes in Washington high schools during the 2014-15 school year.

Based on those statistics, nearly 15 percent of Washington state high school students participated in high school athletics during the survey years, dwarfed by the 82 percent of Wishram High School students who played a fall or winter sport and are signed up for a spring sport. It isn't just at the high school level either. Every single kid in junior high competed in at least one sport throughout the year.

Although the sample size for Wishram is relatively low, with 82 students in the pre-kindergarten through 12th grade school, Churchwell remembers when he began at Wishram in the early 2000s and how athletics were almost an afterthought as the school struggled academically.

"When I started here 15 years ago ... the school was in shambles," Churchwell said. "Discipline was out of control. Learning was almost obsolete."

"What really was amazing was that attendance - and especially like being on time for school and caring about your grades - it was at an all-time low," he added.

He remembers how bad it was. Kids sometimes showed up to school for a few hours, but like he said, many of the kids didn't care about their grades or going to school at all.

"As a result, our kids weren't doing a whole lot as far as even graduating," Wishram superintendent Mike Roberts said. "And if they did graduate, they weren't going on to do anything else."

Until that time, which would've been 2002, Wishram schools sometimes had sports and sometimes didn't have sports.

Prior to Churchwell starting at Wishram, the school's students sometimes played on Lyle's football team. But Lyle's gridiron team was the only sport that Wishram kids competed on.

In 2003, after working in Wishram full-time for about a year, Churchwell started a junior high co-ed basketball team and later put together a co-ed high school hoops team. They weren't in any specific league, but competed against any area teams that wanted to play them.

Shortly after that, Churchwell was offered the athletic director position. He accepted the offer on the condition that he could make a few changes to how the athletic program was previously run. "The first (change was) to provide all sports for every kid here," Churchwell said. "The only way to do that was to get a neighboring school district to take us on because we don't have the numbers to create our own volleyball teams, basketball teams, baseball teams, softball teams and especially football teams."

Churchwell met with then Lyle superintendent Martin Huffman, who accepted the proposition of bringing on Wishram School students to Lyle athletics. The Wishram School Board didn't want the school to lose all its identities, so junior high sports teams were comprised just of Wishram students while the 9-12 graders were transported daily to Lyle for practices and games.

Churchwell was the pioneer, most days working up to 16 hours a day, driving kids to Lyle for practice after school and returning them home late at night after practices and games.

The initial group of athletes was small, maybe one or two kids who played sports. He remembered one year having just one girl from Wishram on the volleyball team, driving her every day to Lyle for practice, games, etc. However, as the years went on, the numbers went up.

After three or four years after picking up athletics, there was an obvious increase in the school's academic success after certain guidelines were set for athletes to follow.

"It just slowly started to pick up," Churchwell said. "More kids started to kind of jump on and after a couple years we had several kids and a few years later we're overrun."

Churchwell also noted that a lot of the teachers at the time were against athletics because they had never been involved and didn't want the district to spend that much money on them. However, opinions were quickly shifted after kids were working harder and caring more about their grades.

"You could walk through our hallways right now and ask every single one of our secondary teachers and most of our elementary teachers 'What do you think about the athletic program here?' And most of them will say 'Thank God we have that athletic program here,' because it took kids and (held them accountable for their academics)," Churchwell said.

"I could no longer do my job without the support of every one of these Wishram teachers," he added. "They not only volunteer to help run the athletic events, they help encourage every one of our students to participate in extracurricular activities."

While the staff was once reluctant to jump aboard the thought of athletics at Wishram, Churchwell has been blessed with overwhelming support from the current Wishram School staff. There's never a shortage of volunteers and Churchwell never has a hard time finding people to run the clock, run the chains at a football game or even announce games.

Although there was a big increase in the academic success at Wishram, Churchwell explained that it was still really difficult for some of the kids to keep up with their assignments and school work while maintaining the grades to keep them eligible for sports.

Enter Roberts, who's in his second year as superintendent of Wishram School. He implemented an Intensive Care Unit/ICU program which, in a nutshell, aims to create accountability with students and have them complete every assignment to a satisfactory level.

For a school that once had attendance problems, Churchwell said under the ICU program, which was implemented during Wishram's second semester last year, that he's had only one kid that's been deemed academically ineligible this year.

"It's taken already one heck of an awesome situation that Wishram has and made it even better," Churchwell said.

"Your grade's a little sick, we're going to get you the extra help to make it healthy," Roberts added about the program. "It's been very successful here."

Now, Wishram athletes make up a large part of the Lyle-Wishram athletic teams. There might not have even been a football team this past year if it weren't for Wishram.

Jaryd Cline

GRIDIRON GANG: Lyle-Wishram head football coach Antoine Montoya, center with hat, address the football team after their final game against Mabton on Oct. 28 in Lyle. Wishram student athletes made up the majority of the Cougar football team last season.

It isn't just athletes either. Antoine Montoya, head football coach, and one of his assistants, Detmar McCullough, both live in Wishram and so does head volleyball coach Jane Roberts, the wife of Mike Roberts. Jason Cooper, who coaches junior high track and field, is another Wishram guy who's coaching for Lyle-Wishram.

Montoya has been a big part of Wishram athletics from all different age groups, from coaching pee wee football and middle school basketball before taking on head coaching duties a few years ago. He noted the grittiness and toughness that he sees in a lot of the Wishram athletes.

"Some of that's background," Montoya said. "Some of that's the houses they come from. This (school and athletics) is kind of their safe spot. This is where they're praised a lot and this is where they show that a lot of us care about them.

"I think they take pride in also representing our town of Wishram and school," he added.

Contact sports editor Jaryd Cline at


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