Christy and Mark Harkins are in love. Have been for a while, more than 30 years, since the pair was in high school in Snohomish, Washington.
But it wasn’t just their love for each other that brought them together for dinner one night more than a decade ago, not long after their young family had grown large enough to fill all five positions on a basketball court. It was their love of sports and, more specifically, their love of coaching. It was their love of passing down lessons they had learned years ago, and their commitment to being role models for kids who could use one.
There was familial love, of course, at the table that night, too. The Harkins’ three sons, Colton, Kyler and Caden, were young but growing, and they had places to be and homework to do every night, not to mention meals to eat and clothes to be cleaned and attention to seek. Mark and Christy, teaching, coaching and parenting simultaneously, were getting stretched pretty thin. So Christy, then the head coach of Flathead’s volleyball team, spoke up between bites of dinner.
“I said maybe it’s time for me to step down,” Christy remembered.
Mark and Christy had decided, years earlier, that they would portray an equal partnership for their kids to model, but the realities of trying to juggle so many balls seemed like they were about to get the best of them. And no matter how much they loved their vocation, family would have to come first.
So Christy said what she said and prepared, in her mind, to indefinitely pause what had been an already successful coaching career that included a state championship at Columbia Falls High School in 1996.
What she was not prepared for was what her young boys said back to her.
“The two older (boys) were like, ‘Why would you do that? Why would you give up something that you love?’”
“That was a really defining moment.”
Christy was a standout two-sport athlete in high school and went on to play college volleyball at Western Washington University. She considered herself lucky to have grown up under a number of female coaches and decided from an early age that she wanted to become one herself one day.
“In the ‘80s, it wasn’t a time period with a ton of women coaches that were great role models, and I had a couple really good ones,” she said. “That was a big thing for me, to be a female coach, role model, with a family, and be able to show other young women that you can have this — you can have a career and family and have success in a lot of different areas.”
After a few years teaching and coaching in tiny Bridgeport, Washington, Mark and Christy — who both graduated from Western Washington — found their way to the Flathead Valley, where they have been ever since. Christy has been a head coach throughout her career, at Columbia Falls, Flathead and now Glacier, and Mark has been a football, basketball and track assistant, along with a stint as Columbia Falls’ head football coach. In 2007, when Glacier High School opened, Christy moved north to take over the Wolfpack volleyball program, and Mark was named the boys basketball coach, jobs they both still hold in addition to teaching positions at the school.
When their kids were born, the young boys adopted the busy coaching routines that mom and dad had settled into.
“They were little gym rats,” Christy said of her sons. “Wherever we were, which was around athletics, the kids followed.”
Not surprisingly, even when the kids weren’t in the gym, they were immersing themselves in competition.
“We grew up playing sports — that’s how all of us bonded,” the eldest son, Colton, 24, remembered. “That was the thing we did — our family hobbies were playing sports.”
Caden, 18 and the youngest of the three boys, remembered making forts out of blocking pads during football two-a-days. Kyler, 21, recalled listening to his parents’ volleyball and basketball games on the radio when the teams competed away from home.
And then there were the games the boys played with each other at the house. There was a square of duct tape on a wall in the basement the boys would fight through each other to try and dunk into, there was a hoop in the backyard and there were hours and hours of wiffle ball showdowns outside.
“And then trampoline ball,” Mark added.
“You put a basketball hoop right by your trampoline and just go at it,” Caden said. “It got pretty crazy … We had to get a net on our trampoline because it got pretty out of hand.”
Even today, with Kyler living in Butte and on track to graduate in May with a mechanical-engineering degree from Montana Tech, the boys have found a way to stay competitive. Kyler and Caden have been known to square off in video game battles of NBA 2K that have led to some occasionally heated discussions.
“I’m screaming downstairs at the TV,” Caden said. “Ask (my parents) — they can hear us yelling.”
Next school year is going to be a challenging one for Mark and Christy and the kind of milestone that parents simultaneously celebrate and dread. The youngest Harkins, Caden, is a senior this year, and the 2018-19 school year will be the first one since 2007-08 that a Harkins boy hasn’t been a student at the school.
Mark Dennehy, Glacier’s activities director, had two children of his own go through the high school.
“I think there’s a couple things,” Dennehy said when asked if he had any advice for the Harkinses. “I think there’s a bit of emptiness when you don’t see your kids and interact with them and talk with them.”
“The number two thing, I think, is there’s a sense of relief, too. You never know what your kids are going to do or how they interact with adults … And when that’s your place of employment, it’s a little different.”
The Harkins boys have been, for the most part, model citizens in their 10 years at Glacier, even if their father had a tough time balancing being both a coach and father to his oldest son.
“I didn’t coach Colton very well, just looking back,” Mark said. “I kind of thought that if Colton made a mistake, it was a reflection on me, and maybe I was a little insecure as a younger coach.”
Mark has softened with his kids as the years went on, and all three said they had a terrific experience as a coach’s son. The trio also raved about their time as student managers for Christy’s volleyball teams and, apparently, learned a thing or two about the sport from their mom.
“Two out of three of them won intramural (volleyball) championships in college,” Christy said with a smile. “So we’re hoping Caden can uphold that.”
Caden doesn’t plan to play basketball in college, so the upcoming Class AA postseason will be the last time any Harkins boy suits up on a basketball floor.
The last time they were in the state tournament together, in 2017, Mark and Caden came home with the school’s first Class AA state title, but when Mark thinks about the memories he and Christy have made with their sons through sports, and through their lives as coaches, it’s not the ones on the court he will miss.
“For the last 10 years, there’s been a kid at the school,” Mark said. “Just having a boy at school that you see in the hall and you pass, or you have him in class or that sort of thing, that’s where I’m going to really notice, I think, the empty space where I don’t see one of the boys every day.”