After earning his 200th win in the 2012-13 season, girls varsity basketball head coach and Salt River High School Athletic Director Shawn Lytle will be leaving the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. Lytle has served as a sports coach at the school for 11 years, and now he has decided it’s time to make a change in his career.
Goodbyes are never easy, and Au-Authm Action News was honored to be there on the day, a few days before the end of the school year, when Lytle called a meeting to break the news to his girls.
As Lytle and I walked through the SRHS gym, evidence of his contributions to school athletics was everywhere. Overhead, banners display everything Lytle has helped build while coaching here
Asked what his two most memorable moments are, he said the first one came in his second year, when he was coaching the girls softball team.
“We qualified for state—the first team ever to quality in school history. Now they take 24 teams, but back then they only took eight,” said Lytle. “We played St. David, who ended up winning the whole tournament.” The Eagles lost 8-1. “It was the beginning of the girls sports programs [at Salt River]. They paved the way for female athletics.”
He continued, “We only had eight girls at the beginning of the season. I told them, ‘You’re doing awesome, but you need find a couple more [girls] in order to play. We need 10.’ So they got a couple more girls for the team, and we finished the season with 10 players. To this day I still see almost all of those girls here in the Community, working, having families. It’s awesome seeing them around and watching them grow up.” Lytle smiled as he looked at the team photo and recalled that moment. Back then he was 11 years younger—and had longer hair.
“Stuff like that I’m gonna miss the most,” he added.
Lytle was 24 years old when he was hired as the boys basketball coach and assistant athletic director for Salt River. “The high school wasn’t even here. The fields were!” he said, laughing, recalling the days when the Salt River High School campus didn’t yet exist.
“As an athletics director, it’s great to see how all the programs have grown and gotten stronger. Now [other high schools] have to worry about Salt River being competitive. And I want nothing more than for them to flourish,” he said.
Lytle stated that building the school’s football program has been his biggest challenge. He wishes he could have figured out a better way to have gotten that program started before the junior-high level in order to build the high-school program. He got tackle football going in the second or third year he was here.
Another challenge came in the second season of his career, when the girls basketball head coach quit and Lytle took over. “We ran boys practice after school and the girls [practice] afterwards. We played [against] the same teams, so that part was kind of easy. It was hard, but it was fun for me, and that’s what got me into coaching the girls basketball team.”
Under Lytle, the Salt River High School Lady Eagles have won two of the last four AIA state championships, in 2010 and 2013. This year, the team lost to St. David in the Division IV semifinals.
Now it was time for the hard part. As we’re walking down the hallway after school, it’s quiet. The walls are covered with flyers and announcements on colored paper from the SRHS student council and other groups. Lytle laughs with a student who walks by and high-fives him; another student greets him, and they joke around a little. He opens the doors to the auditorium, walks in and is greeted by darkness. It’s cooler here, the lighting dim, the voices echoing off the naked walls.
The girls begin to trickle in one at a time. Then two come in, another three. Lytle jokes with them, asking if they were sleeping in class. The girls ask, “What’s going on?” and “What are we doing?” He starts out by asking for some outstanding practice gear and other items to be turned in—normal comments you would expect from an athletic director with the season over and only a handful of days left in the school year.
Now almost everyone is standing still. He looks down and begins to fumble with some sticky notes. “Not sure if some of you heard, but I am leaving.” He looks up, trying to hold back his tears. “I’m gonna miss you.” He begins to explain that he was just talking about his first team here, and how he sees those players with their families now, all grown up. Some work for the Community in different jobs. “That was my first team; you guys will be my last team. If you ever need anything, let me know.”
Swallowing hard, he assures them he’s leaving on good terms. Before they go, he reminds them to stand up for themselves, make good choices, work hard, never back down, make a difference. “Everyone asks me, ‘Why don’t you have any kids?’ You guys are my kids,” he says, wiping away tears. The girls are quiet, numb. Some tear up, others hold back.
Then they break out in laughter; he assures them he’s not going to be far away. There is one last group hug in the auditorium, and as the girls walk away, they joke about missing the bus.
Following the meeting, after the news has had time to spread, phone calls come in from a couple of parents. “Thank you.”
“I just want to say thank you to the kids, and the Community has been absolutely great to me,” said Lytle. “They were very welcoming, and I’ve grown here as a man. The boys and girls mean the world to me, and I just hope I made a mark in their lives, and I hope the school continues to grow and strives to be better. This was by far the hardest decision I have had to make in my adult life. But it’s time for a new chapter in my life. It’s sad but good. It’s very bittersweet.”