As he walked into the Reynolds High gymnasium last Friday, Liberty boys basketball coach O.J. Gulley felt memories pouring through STAFF PHOTO BY DAVID BALL - Liberty boys basketball coach O.J. Gulley (left) reminisces about his time at Reynolds during a recent non-league game.

It was a homecoming in the truest sense of the word for Gulley, who was a standout prep basketball player at Reynolds and then became an assistant coach there for five years.

“It was weird,” Gulley says. “It was different. There were some butterflies because I was really coming back home. I know a lot of the kids. A lot of the kids playing now are kids that were coming up through the youth program that I had seen at all the camps. It was interesting. I’ll give you that one.”

The Falcons did their coach proud, defeating Reynolds 55-50 to move to 3-1 on the season.

Liberty’s performance early in the season is surprising given how young the team is. In 2011-12 Liberty went 15-11 overall and finished fourth in the Northwest Oregon Conference with a 7-7 record before losing in the first round of the playoffs. The Falcons graduated seven seniors from that team. This year, they are starting three freshmen and two sophomores.

“We’re young,” Gulley says. “We’re very, very young. We’re playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores. We graduated seven seniors last year so we knew it would be a tough road. We’re trying to rebuild and regroup and we’re doing that. The unfortunate thing is that we’re in a tough, tough league this year, so we know that when league starts in January it’s going to be very challenging for us.”

Gulley hopes that Liberty can use the preseason to get his young team as prepared as they can be for league play.

“Right now we’re just trying to become battle tested and get as good as we can get before league starts,” Gulley says. “It’s going to be tough.”

Even with how young Liberty is, Gulley still has high expectations for his players.

“We understand that this year it’s going to be challenging,” Gulley says. “At the same time we still want to compete. We never want to settle for less. Our kids have their eye on competing and getting one of those top four spots in conference this year.

“But, at the end of the day, as a coaching staff we know that with these young guys there’s going to be some struggles. We really hope that two or three years from now, these young guys are going to be really good and we’re competing for not only the conference but for the state.”

With Liberty trying to build the program for years to come, it seems clear that Gulley is the right man to lead the team.

Growing up in Arkansas, Gulley was a football player. When he moved to Oregon just before high school, he found that he did not like the cold climate and shifted his attention to basketball.

In learning about basketball, Gulley watched as many games as he could on TV.

“I see myself as a student of the game and just watched it a lot,” Gulley says. “It’s weird because I never played before moving up here. All I did is watch people on TV. Everybody was right-handed. I’m actually left-handed, but watching people play right-handed on TV, I thought that was the way to do it, so I started playing right-handed. It’s been that way ever since.”

Even playing with his opposite hand, Gulley soon became a star at Reynolds.

He was a First Team All-State point guard and was a three-time Mt. Hood All-Conference selection. In 1999, as a senior, he led the league in scoring and was named Player of the Year, as well as Reynolds’ male athlete of the year.

“I loved it,” Gulley says of his time at Reynolds. “The staff and coaches treated me very well. We had some good years there, some good teams. It was a lot of fun.”

After high school, Gulley went to Oregon State for a year before transferring to Linfield.

On the court at Linfield, Gulley was a three-time Northwest Conference all star. He became Linfield’s all-time leader in steals (149) and is second in career minutes played (1,840).

At Linfield, Gulley also returned to the football field, playing cornerback.

“I couldn’t ask for anything better,” Gulley says of playing both basketball and football at Linfield. “I was basketball only my first year and then football was something I always wanted to keep playing. The opportunity arose and I took it and that turned out to be very good for me.”

Gulley was a member of the Linfield football team that won the national championship in 2004. Just a few weeks later, in January, he accepted a social studies teaching job at Reynolds.

“It was less than a couple of weeks and I was fortunate enough to get a teaching job right away,” Gulley says. “It was good to go back home.”

Gulley had always loved history and blending history along with his passion for basketball made teaching and coaching the perfect career choice for him.

“I was always interested in history,” Gulley says. “That was what interested me in high school and even before, and you think, ‘Oh, what are you going to do with it? There’s not a whole lot of things to do with it.’ I also wanted to coach and stay around sports. So why not try to coach and teach and be around kids and be around basketball?”

Gulley’s first coaching gig came at the helm of the Reynolds freshman team. He then moved on to coach the junior varsity team. Then, in 2008, with Reynolds making cuts, Gulley lost his teaching position at the school.

“Reynolds was in major budget cuts in ‘08 and at the high school we cut 54 or 57 teachers,” Gulley says. “I was one of those guys who had been there five years and got cut. I was kind of scrambling to find a job.”

Soon after that, a position opened up at Liberty.

“I was fortunate,” Gulley says.

At Liberty, Gulley taught social studies for four years before being moved up to his current position as the Dean of Students.

During the first few years at Liberty, Gulley was an assistant coach with the men’s basketball team. Last year, after former coach Tom Marshall resigned, Gulley took over as the head men’s coach.

It was a big transition for Gulley, but one that he wanted and that he felt he was prepared for.

“It was something that I’ve always envisioned, something that I’ve always wanted to do,” Gulley says. “It was a difficult transition because you’re taking on more responsibility. As an assistant you’re just strategizing X’s and O’s. then you move up and you’ve got to deal with parents and community members and all the stakeholders who take part in it. Your job level increases largely. But, I was ready for it and excited for it. I felt like I had been battle tested and I knew how to handle all of that.”

Gulley has traveled a long road to become Liberty’s head basketball coach. The homecoming pit stop at Reynolds was one of the more pleasant pieces of scenery. Now, though, Gulley will turn his attention to the exciting drive that he has in front of him.

“I’m very happy, very excited,” Gulley says. “Liberty is a great place. It has a great staff. There’s great people here. The facilities are amazing. The community is getting on board and taking some ownership of the basketball team. There’s good administration.

“It couldn’t have worked out better for me. I’m extremely excited for the future.”

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