The Front Row with MARK NELKE Nov. 29, 2012

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Jim Winger doesn't know how his Lake City High boys basketball team got invited last year - to the Dan Fitzgerald Memorial Basketball Tournament, commonly known as "The Fitz."

Perhaps some people involved with the tournament knew of the connection between Winger and the former Gonzaga men's basketball coach and athletic director.

But, no matter the reason, once he did get the word, he quickly accepted the invite.

"For me, personally, it's a real big deal," said Winger, whose Timberwolves face Blanchet of Salem, Ore., on Friday at 9 p.m., and West Valley of Yakima on Saturday at 4 p.m. Both games are at Lewis and Clark High in Spokane.

Winger's relationship with Fitzgerald, who died in 2010 at age 67, has been chronicled before. He met him when Fitz was at the house recruiting Winger's brother Mike, who went on to start at Gonzaga for three seasons.

When Jim Winger transferred to Gonzaga from North Idaho College, he and Fitz talked hoops a lot - Winger knew way back then he wanted to go into coaching.

He said Fitz would "leave a side door open" so Winger could sneak into the GU gym and watch some of the other coaching legends of the West Coast Conference - Paul Westhead (Loyola Marymount), Lynn Nance (Saint Mary's), Jim Harrick (Pepperdine), Carroll Williams (Santa Clara), to name a few - practice their teams before playing the Zags.

"I can still remember the man selling Gonzaga - I still haven't met many like that," Winger said. "It was just that unique personality he had. You didn't really talk to Fitz - he talked to you. You said hello and goodbye. He died way too young."

All that background likely won't resonate with the players right now. But the pre-tournament banquet, scheduled for Thursday night at Northern Quest Resort and featuring former Santa Clara basketball coach Dick Davey as featured speaker, should.

Since Fitz was a supporter of the Union Gospel Mission, the players are helping serve lunch and dinner to the less fortunate on Friday at the mission.

"I'm pretty honored for the kids to be in it," Winger said.

* Coeur d'Alene High's girls basketball team (3-0) will get its first test of the season this weekend at the Northwest Invitational in Beaverton, Ore.

The Vikings open play tonight at 5 vs. Central Catholic of Portland. Central Catholic is favored to win the state title, Coeur d'Alene coach Dale Poffenroth said. Point guard Jordan Reynolds has signed with Tennessee, and post Kailee Johnson has signed with Stanford.

“They do not get much better than this team,” Poffenroth said.

Also in the tournament are Cleveland High of Seattle, and Oregon squads Lebanon, Westview, South Medford, Lincoln and Southridge.

“There are two out-of-state teams and they play the two best teams in the tournament the first day,” Poffenroth said. “Interesting.”

The Vikings mowed past their first three foes, all from the 4A Inland Empire League, by a combined 135 points. All three games finished with running clocks in the fourth quarter.

It’s Coeur d’Alene’s third straight trip to the Beaverton tourney. The Vikings have finished third out of eight teams each of the first two years.

• Fruitland High football coach Bruce Schlaich announced his retirement earlier this week after 35 years of coaching, the last 12 seasons at Fruitland, the last seven ending in the state championship game. He won three state titles — two at Fruitland, one at Parma. He was 110-23 at Fruitland, 152-53 in 20 seasons total as a head coach.

If this is indeed it for Schlaich, his last victory was over Timberlake, in the state 3A semifinals a couple of weeks ago in Spirit Lake.

Afterward, gracious in victory, he had kind words for the Timberlake program and coach Roy Albertson.

“I’ve gone against Roy Albertson teams for a lot of years and they’re always well-coached and they’re always disciplined,” Schlaich said. “They’re simple in what they do, but they do it so well. That’s where they cause you the problems is in their execution. Hat’s off to him; I thought they had a great season.”

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via email at mnelke@cdapress.com. Follow him on Twitter at CdAPressSports.

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