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Originally published Saturday, January 26, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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At Cleveland, coaching couple share the lessons they've lived

Stephenie and Derrick Wheeler-Smith want to teach more than basketball to the Cleveland girls hoops team.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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She wears a stern look, and he seems serious, too.

They are running the Cleveland High School girls basketball players through offensive sets — over and over again.

She is already seething because the wrestling team is cutting into valuable practice time, and she lets the wrestling coach know that one-half of this court belongs to her girls for at least an hour, so no infringing.

Stephenie and Derrick Wheeler-Smith appear all business, taking turns demonstrating the seal inside, the sharp cut to the basket.

But listen closely, and you hear the humor.

After sharp-shooter Makayla Roper passes on a three-point shot in favor of a pull-up jumper, Derrick says, "I'll take that, but is there something wrong with your gun? Take the safety off."

"It wasn't cocked!" Roper responds with a smile.

The wife and husband make an interesting and successful coaching tandem. Stephenie is the head coach, Derrick the head assistant, although Stephenie says they are more like co-coaches.

In 2009-10, just their second season with what had been a struggling program, the Eagles won their first state title. This year's team is among the Class 3A favorites again, especially after knocking off No. 1 Wilson of Tacoma on Monday.

Ultimately, though, the two are more interested in life lessons. They talk about believing, persevering and bouncing back from adversity.

And the girls love playing for them.

"They're funny!" junior Alexia Mefi said. Especially Derrick, players agree.

"But coach Steph has sneaky jokes," Roper said.

Sometimes, they play good cop/bad cop, "although lately I'm playing a lot more good cop," Derrick teases.

That's because Stephenie is 5 ½ months pregnant with a son, Judah, due May 17.

The players, who rub her growing belly, understand how special this baby is. Not just because the couple, nearing their ninth wedding anniversary, has waited five years for him, but because Stephenie miscarried last February. The players only learned about that this season, when the Wheeler-Smiths told them she was expecting again.

It became a lesson in resiliency and resolve.

"It was more talking to them about adversity," said Derrick, a former football player at Franklin High School who is World Vision's national director for the Youth Empowerment Program.

"How do you push through things when they're difficult, and what does it mean to continue to believe and also to prepare — not just standing around waiting for something to happen, but creating an environment that says you expect for good things to happen in your life?"

Stephenie, a three-sport athlete at Jefferson High School in Portland who played basketball at Eastern Washington, has lived many of her lessons. Last season, she not only juggled coaching and her full-time job as a purchaser for Boeing, but also earned her master's degree in organizational management from Seattle University.

The day she miscarried, Stephenie insisted on going to work and coaching that night against Franklin. Derrick was by her side as usual, he in a suit and she in a dress and heels — coaching couture they chose their first season in an attempt to alter the culture in the program and perceptions outside of it.

She has the stronger coaching background of the two, who met at a youth camp 13 years ago.

Stephenie assisted at Kent-Meridian, Rainier Beach and Seattle Prep before Cleveland approached her to take over as head coach.

Derrick's reaction: Cleveland?

The Eagles hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 2003-04 and managed just three victories in 2006-07. But Stephenie said she wanted to go where she could turn a program around. Then told Derrick she wanted him to coach with her.

"Now you're really crazy," he thought.

But he bought in, and together they've turned Cleveland into an annual contender, mixing laughter with layups and life lessons along the way.

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