Flip to the 4A section of this weekend’s program for the softball state championships and something will jump off the page where Idaho Falls is listed.
The last name Wilkinson will appear four times below the roster. Traci is in her seventh season as head coach, while her husband Jay and their daughters Tyler and Alex, both Idaho Falls High graduates and former Tiger softball players, are assistant coaches. It is the first time they have all lived in the same state since 2013, and they have all been able to share in one of the best seasons in program history.
The Tigers (22-4) defeated top-seeded Blackfoot twice last Thursday to win the 4A District 6 championship--their first district title since 2015 and first at the 4A level--and will open the 4A state tournament Friday at Ramsey Field in Coeur d’Alene versus Ridgevue, their same first-round opponent as last year. Idaho Falls matched a program-best finish by placing fourth in 2018.
Coaching together is something all four of them said they did not envision four to five years ago. Having reached the final week of their first season together, however, they acknowledge the rarity of coaching alongside their immediate family members, particularly for the team Tyler and Alex played for.
“My parents have coached me since I was 11,” Tyler said. “Being able to step into that role has been awesome. I don’t know how many kids can say they coach with their parents.”
The fact that all four Wilkinsons are coaching at Idaho Falls this season is no accident. Tyler, a 2011 Idaho Falls graduate, joined the coaching staff for the 2018 season after a college career that included being named a NJCAA First Team All-American after her sophomore season (2013) at the College of Southern Idaho, leading 2014 NCAA Division II champion West Texas A&M in stolen bases and serving as a graduate assistant for the program after her final two seasons as a player.
Alex, a 2016 Idaho Falls graduate and former infielder and pitcher for the Tigers, expressed interest in helping coach the Tigers before returning from her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints mission to Raleigh, N.C., in late 2018. Her decision to attend BYU Idaho upon returning to Idaho finalized her hire, as she would be attending a college close enough to allow her to coach in Idaho Falls.
Tyler was an infielder for Idaho Falls before moving to outfield all four years of college while Alex was a pitcher and infielder in high school. Between the two of them, they have experience playing every position except catcher, which Alex did not play, and have provided Traci and Jay with two additional sources of advice
“They both bring a lot of knowledge,” Jay said. “It’s most definitely been rewarding seeing them go from athlete to coach. It hasn’t been as stressful (for me and Traci) because we’ve been able to delegate things with other people. We can bounce ideas off of Tyler and Alex, even in the middle of a game.”
Not to say that there have not been disagreements. They spend ample time together outside of practice, arriving home at 8 p.m. on week days and constructing a practice plan for the next day before going to bed. Sometimes finalizing a practice plan can take 45 minutes, Jay said.
“We’re very Type A, all four of us,” Tyler said. “We’re not afraid to voice our opinions.”
“There’s definitely a lot of head butting when we do practice plans,” Traci added with a laugh. “We’ve done softball for 15 years, 10 months out of each year. We end up finding a compromise and figure out how to continue to help these girls improve.”
Dividing responsibilities at practices has been fairly easy, however. Jay, Alex and Tyler help with pitching, Tyler is the hitting coach, Tyler and Traci coach outfielders and catchers and Jay and Alex coach infielders.
Tyler and Alex both coached to some degree while they were still in high school, whether it was offering private lessons or helping their parents with the Hysteria travel softball program, which they founded in 2004. Joining I.F.’s coaching staff has required some transition for both of them, however.
For Alex, adjustments were necessary for her as well as the Tigers due to the fact she played with this year’s seniors when she was a senior. While she said the close difference in age has allowed her to relate to the Tigers, getting accustomed to being a coach rather than their teammate took some time. That new relationship has flourished, and the results have shown.
“Seeing them from their freshman year and now their senior year, they have progressed so much,” Alex said. “The confidence is there that wasn’t there before. Seeing them know they can do it, that’s been so amazing to see as a former player and now as a coach.”
For Tyler, the adjustment was going from being a graduate assistant to coaching at the high school level. She said it helped that several of the Tigers already knew who she was, and as a former college athlete, she brings firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be on the receiving end of various coaching personalities. Tyler’s approach is constructive and positive reinforcement, and that is what she has provided during games since becoming third base coach last season.
“In college, my coach expected a lot,” Tyler said. “When you didn’t do very good, you knew it. I knew if I took (third base) over, I could work things through with them and they won’t have to go through what I went through.”
This is also the first time Tyler and Alex have coached together on the same team. Both said they have learned much from each other, especially after years of living apart.
“Most of my high school career, she was gone,” Alex said. “It’s been great to coach with her. She’s one where you can just pick her brain.”
“In high school, we definitely fought a lot,” Tyler said. “After I moved away, we had a tighter bond. It’s nice to see we’ve grown up and can learn from each other. Alex is the first one I go to. A lot of times, she knows what I’m thinking.”
For Jay and Traci, watching their daughters go from athletes to coaches has been joyful, and they have had a front row seat this spring.
“Seeing them coach and contribute to a team that gave them so much, it’s a proud mama moment,” Traci said.
The Wilkinsons said there has been much trial and error during their 15 years in softball, a sport they ventured into once 11 year-old Tyler chose sports over dance when it became clear she could no longer do both. Jay and Traci attended coaching clinics and read every piece of coaching material they could find, applying that knowledge to their Hysteria program and later at I.F.
They continue seeking to expand their knowledge as well as setting goals, and they have a big one for this weekend. The senior-laden Tigers leave Thursday for north Idaho with ambitions of adding to their statement season by becoming the first District 6 softball team at any level since 2004 to win a state championship.
“There’s always failures in softball, but the successes outweigh the failures,” Jay said. “The expectation is to try to win, but we face tough competition, especially from Boise. If you don’t expect to win, you’re gonna lose. We know we have to push ourselves as coaches and players.”
As for any long-term futures in coaching, Alex and Tyler acknowledged that while there are some unknowns, they are enjoying the ride and are grateful to be giving back.
“I would love to keep doing it,” Alex said. “When I have my own family, I’d like to coach my kids like my parents coached me.”
“I’ve seen the turnaround in this area for softball and I just want to keep building that,” Tyler said. “Being able to see this program turn around has been fun. To know I’ve been able to be a part of that has been super rewarding.”