Penny Gienger, who coached at Bainbridge, Kingston and North Kitsap, retired following the 2019-20 girls basketball season
Penny Gienger came to the Kitsap Peninsula from New Orleans more than 25 years ago never dreaming her high-school coaching career would last just as long.
Gienger took over for former Spartan coach Leigh Ann Charlston, who had guided the team to an 87-15 record in her four years, back-to-back state championships and a fourth-place trophy.
“It’s hard to follow a legend,” Gienger said.
Those were big shoes for the young coach to step into, but she proved her mettle and coaching ability in the years to come.
Now Gienger wants the time to put that energy into enjoying her freedom and her family in Oregon.
“My father’s getting older and I want to spend time with him,” Gienger said. “I think I ran a pretty good race and I think it’s time for me to give someone else a chance.”
Former North Kitsap standout Olivia Selembo grew into an all-league guard for the Vikings under the watchful tutelage of Gienger.
“The thing people should really know about Penny is that she loved instilling hard work and dedication into others,” Selembo said. “She made working hard fun and rewarding, which makes you only want to work harder. Not only did having her as a coach build my self-esteem, but she made me feel valuable as a player and also a confident leader to my teammates. She finds value in every single person which I think is amazing.”
Gienger had a reputation for being an intense presence on the bench — and sometimes that would rub people, most officials, the wrong way. But the hard work she instilled in her players paid off as the Spartans won a state championship in 1998-99 and two fourth-place trophies (1989-90, 2003-04). She coached 18 seasons at Bainbridge and retired after her final season there.
That ‘retirement’ didn’t last long.
Not even one season.
Gienger stepped in the following season to help out Kingston, which lost its coach right before the season began. She stayed for three years. She guided the Buccaneers to an Olympic League title in 2012 along with a state tournament appearance, the school’s first, in 2010.
Gienger, a Kingston resident, thought that would be her last stint until former North Kitsap standout Molly Lemmon urged Gienger to take over the Vikings after Tim French stepped down in 2015.
“Molly Lemmon wanted me to come to NK,” Gienger said, “it’s hard to say no to them. I always loved how Molly played.”
“… Being good family friends with her, we knew she missed it and encouraged her to go back to coaching,” Lemmon (now Olson) said. “I also knew she would have a huge impact on the players’ (lives) outside of the basketball knowledge she had.”
Gienger coached at North Kitsap for five seasons, leading North to an Olympic League title in 2016-17, its first state appearance in 30 years in 2017-18, and five regional appearances.
“I love North. It’s a really great place for me. Genuine people, everyone cares a lot,” Gienger said. “It wasn’t about win, win, win, it was what’s best for everyone.”
North Kitsap assistant coach Kim (Smith) Selembo saw how much time Gienger spent pouring over game film, planning practices and scouting to give her players every bit of knowledge she could heading into a game. She also knew first-hand as a former player for Gienger at Bainbridge her dedication to her players.
“Most people didn’t get to see the softer side of Penny unless they spent more time with her,” Selembo said. “She would often joke with her players that she had gotten soft in her old age, to which they would sometimes laugh and joke with her about it. If you knew the true Penny, you know that she cared deeply for her players and fellow coaches and truly wanted them to love competing and finding success through hard work on the court, in the classroom and in their friendships with one another.
“Having played for her myself in high school, I am glad all three of my girls had the privilege of playing for and learning from one of the best,” Selembo said.
Gienger was quite successful in the Olympic League, finishing with an 89-20 record in league play (138-71 overall). The Vikings had some of their most competitive games against league rival Port Angeles as the two programs were vying for the league title year after year.
PA coach Mike Poindexter said the program’s grew familiar with each other as they attended many of the same summer camps and their respective players were multi-sport athletes, which bolstered the rivalry.
“We both had talented, hard-working, intelligent players for much of that time,” he said. “Both programs have high standards and aspirations. … and while the two teams saw each other as our major league rivals, there was a great deal of mutual respect. Each team tended to bring out the best in each other.”
Poindexter added he saw how Gienger thoroughly loved her players as people and was compassionate despite her intensity.
Did she make him a better coach?
“I hope so,” Poindexter said. “She knew our team, our past history and our community pretty well. She helped me interpret some things I’d see here so that I could be a better problem solver. In our games together, she found good ways of attacking things we generally had success with against other teams. That helped us prepare for the best teams we would see in a season.
“… I’ll miss her personally and our league will miss her high-quality coaching,” he continued. “Maybe most of all, I’ll miss the laughter (and the friendly heckling) we had over the years.”
Gienger finished her career with an overall record of 439-210 and a winning percentage of .676. She was inducted into the Kitsap Athletic Roundtable Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
But it’s going to be the relationships that she built with her players that Gienger will remember the most.
“I’m really proud of all my players,” Gienger said. “It doesn’t matter if we win state or not.”
Gienger said athletes want to be good, they want to be coached better and that was the philosophy she took with her to practice.
“I really loved my players,” she said, adding “that’s one thing I’ll miss the most.”
Lemmon Olson appreciated Gienger’s transparency.
“You always knew the expectations she had for you because she would just say them, she wouldn’t (sugar) coat it, she would tell you how it is,” she said.
The softer side of Gienger’s personality came in the form of notes she would give to each of her players before a game. Those notes became cherished mementos for her players.
“Sometimes they were quotes from coaching icons, but other times she would give you personal goals for the game,” Lemmon Olson said, “(She would) tell you what you did good at practice that week. It meant so much as a player to feel seen even in a gym full of 30-40 girls.”
Selembo said Gienger said she was surprised to learn of Gienger’s retirement.
“She’s one of those coaches that you want everyone to get to have, not only because she knows what she’s talking about but it’s inevitable that you’ll become a better athlete,” she said.
Selembo always knew Gienger would have her back and “she never gave up on one of her players.
“She made sure that the synergy of the team was consistent, which is why we were so successful during my years with her,” she said.
Three-sport standout Noey Barreith, who earned Olympic League MVP honors this year in both volleyball and basketball for North Kitsap, said Gienger affected all areas of her life.
“She not only challenged me to be the best basketball player I could be every time I stepped on the court, she also challenged me to be the best student in the classroom and person I could be to not only my teammates but everybody I interacted with,” Barreith said.
Barreith said the tradition of the notes became part of her pre-game ritual and she looked forward to reading them before every game.
“I cherished those notes because they were more personal and they contained words of encouragement that was specific to things I was going through in my life at that time … not necessarily pertaining to basketball,” she said. “Penny was more than a coach to me. She is somebody I admire and look up to.”
Gienger was also there for her players whose first sport wasn’t basketball.
Raelee Moore, a 2019 NK graduate who is competing in track and field at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, said she was excited to play basketball for the Vikings. Moore was in eighth grade when Gienger took over in Poulsbo.
“She is a coach that has a ton of respect for her players and trust their abilities,” Moore said. “Being able to know that your coach trusts you makes competing so much easier … we trusted her and she trusted us, which is what I believe led us to breaking the 30-year state tournament drought.”
Moore said the team bonding throughout the season was a high priority to building strong relationships off the court. But it was Gienger’s support of Moore’s pursuit of track and field that made her feel unique.
“Although I chose not to play basketball in college, Penny supported me in my track meets as well,” Moore said. “I remember seeing her at the end of the runway trying her best to coach me through my jump. She always wanted to help me, on and off the court.
“It’s crazy to see that Penny is retiring, but she has a great career behind her. It will be weird coming back to games and (not) seeing her on the bench, but I know she’ll for sure be in the crowd.”