By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Josh Erickson’s senior year (2002-2003) as a McNary High School basketball player is a testament to the potency of matching a good coach with talented players.
“Our basketball team went 25-3 and finished fourth in the state. This was Coach (Jim) Litchfield’s first year as a head coach, and it was an incredible way for all of us seniors to finish our high-school careers. Making the state tournament at Memorial Coliseum and finishing fourth with some of my best friends and the other members of our senior class in a memory I will always cherish,” Erickson said.
Erickson went on to play for Willamette University, but his career as a college player was fraught with injury. He underwent four surgeries in two years to try to correct the problems, but sometimes the human body is just stubborn.
“At the time it was an incredibly difficult experience to not be able to play but it also started my coaching career. I began looking at the game as more of a coach and had the incredible opportunity to learn from a great coach and great man, Willamette’s Gordie James,” Erickson said. As a Bearcat, Erickson was also under the tutelage of Keizerite Wally Wing, a physical education instructor at Gubser Elementary School. Wing moonlighted as an assistant coach to the Willamette program.
In his senior year at Willamette, after his fourth injury, Litchfield invited Erickson back to McNary as an assistant coach. Since then, Erickson has turned his passion for basketball into a career as a program director for an exchange program he co-founded and found a home as head coach of the Costa Rican National Team.
Erickson graduated from Willamette in 2007 as double major in sociology and economics, but coaching had already sunk its teeth in deep. He coached at the United States Basketball Academy with players from China and Japan. It planted the seed for what would become Beyond, his Costa Rica-based exchange program for athletes seeking to study abroad.
In 2008, he visited Costa Rica to to conduct basketball clinics for local youth and teach English. It opened his eyes to the possibility of connecting cultures through sports.
“My personal experience living in Costa Rica and being able to experience a different culture drove me and continues to drive me to provide the same experience for college students,” Erickson said.
He returned to Willamette to get his MBA from the Atkinson School of Management. He connected with another alum of the Willamette basketball team, Grant Leslie, and the pair founded Beyond. They graduated in May 2010 and held their first program for college students in July 2010 in Costa Rica.
“A major driving force for our program was the fact that student-athletes typically study abroad at a much lower rate than the general student population. Participating in college sports is a full-time job and often students are forced to sacrifice experiences such as study abroad. Both Grant and I had the opportunity to travel and live abroad and these experiences were some of the most powerful of our lives,” Erickson said.
To date more than 300 athletes have taken part in Beyond’s study abroad programs, which range from a 10-day competition touring stint to a full four-week program.
In the longer programs, students stay with host families and continue training for the sports they play at the college level in the United States.
“Students also spend two days each week working with local youth at our free sports camps. This is one of the most powerful parts of our program and allows them to share their sport with kids and interact with them on a personal level,” Erickson said.
This summer alone, Erickson will welcome more than 200 students to Costa Rica.
In the past four years, leaving his newfound home in Costa Rica has become increasingly difficult, especially after accepting the role of head coach for the national team. In his second year with the team, it won the National Championship, a first in the team’s history.
“I view this coaching job as an extension of my work with Beyond and using sports to connect with people in Costa Rica,” he said. “This year, we will be facing teams such as Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Mexico that feature multiple current NBA players. Being able to coach our National Team in Costa Rica goes beyond words. Most of the players on the team that I coach are older than I am so to be given this position as a foreigner and as a 28-year old is very special to me.”
To all of his endeavors, Erickson brings with him lessons learned from Litchfield, James, Wing and Larry Gahr. One in particular has stuck with him over the years and miles.
“The importance they placed on creating personal relationships with the players and caring about each player as a person before anything else was special. Creating trust with your players and making sure they know how much you care about them off the court is something I learned from these coaches and is the foundation of my coaching philosophy,” he said. “Coaching basketball has allowed me to meet people from all over the world and is something that I feel blessed to do every single day.”