TERRELL LESTER

Sports Editor



Russell Walden has landed on his feet.

Yet he can’t dismiss the feeling of being stalled in mid-flight.

Walden, who did not keep his baseball job at Claremore High School this spring, recently accepted the head baseball coaching position at Ponca City High School.

And, as with many such professional transitions, he has obligations in Claremore that have delayed his departure.

There is the matter of buying and selling homes, of packing and moving.

“I feel like I’m in a holding pattern,” Walden was saying the other day.

“The tower’s telling me to keep circling. I can’t land yet.

“I’m not a Zebra. I’m not a Wildcat. I don’t know what I am right now. I’m just in a holding pattern.”

He might be holding, but he is not standing still.

He is working the Ponca City Wildcats’ baseball job from an area code away.

He is on the telephone daily, staying in touch with his new school’s administration, his new booster club’s hierarchy.

“I’m anxious to get started,” he said.

It is a move he had not anticipated during the last school year.

But then, he did not have much time during the last school year to think beyond the moment at hand.

He took the reins of the Claremore baseball program in January when head coach Matt Murray left to take a position on the Kansas State University staff.

The season began in February.

Walden, a Zebra assistant for six seasons, was given the title of “interim head coach.”

“We had a real fast-paced season,” Walden said. “We had a whole new set of kids, only two returning players.”

The Zebras won only nine games.

Immediately following the season, the head coaching job was up for grabs.

“It wasn’t necessarily all my choice to leave,” Walden said.

“I was given the choice to stay. I could have stayed as an assistant.

“But I knew I wanted to be a head coach.”

The 30-year-old Walden had served his apprenticeship at Latta High School and at Claremore. When he had applied for head-coaching openings, the biggest roadblock he encountered was the lack of experience as a head coach.

Inheriting the Zebra post upon Murray’s departure proved to be the break that Walden needed.

“I was really fortunate,” he said.

“I was very fortunate to get that opportunity and to parlay that into a job like Ponca; to jump from an assistant, basically, for seven years, into the head coaching job at a 6A program with great potential and a really good town.”

Walden, who graduated from Oologah High School and East Central University, was destined to be a coach.

His father was a coach and administrator. His mother was a classroom teacher.

He played basketball at Meeker High School through his junior year under coach Mark Campbell, the Lady Zebras’ basketball coach.

He played baseball at Oologah for coach Ron Faubion.

His first assistant’s job was at Latta, under legendary coach Eddie Collins, who has amassed 1,000 career victories.

In his first season at Claremore, Walden worked on the staff of Ron Bradley, and then followed in the footsteps of Matt Murray.

In college, Walden worked as a summer counselor at the famous Chandler Baseball Camp.

And, as a youngster in Meeker, Walden rubbed shoulders with Hall of Fame pitcher Carl Hubbell.

Throughout his life, Walden has been influenced by the sport of baseball, and the personalities of baseball.

“I loved it from the word ‘go,’” he said. “I ate it up.

“I probably didn’t have a choice. I was going to be a coach. It was just ingrained.”

At Ponca City, he will finally have the opportunity to put his stamp on his own baseball program.

“I’ve got some stuff to prove to myself and to the baseball world,” he said.

“I felt like if I stay here at Claremore, I’m maintaining a program that coach Bradley and coach Murray have built.

“I’ve helped. I’ve been an assistant. But it wasn’t my program.

“Now, at Ponca, this is appealing to me. I feel like this can really be a chance for me to make a name for myself.”

With his wife, Melissa, they are pulling up some deep roots. She is leaving the Claremore school system where she had launched a female fitness program.

At Ponca City, she will teach sixth-grade math. Eventually, Russell Walden said, she will be given the opportunity to launch another female fitness program, this time in Ponca City.

Russell Walden, in the meantime, will teach business.

And when he takes the baseball field next spring, his first spring as “head coach” without “interim” attached, Russell Walden will be all business.

All the coaches who have influenced his thinking, and charted his career path, will have solidly prepared him for the challenge at hand.

“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “There’s a plan and you don’t always know what that plan is.”

Walden did not expect the plan to take him to Ponca City.

But he’s glad it did.