A Lifetime Passion for the Game

Sutherlin High graduate transitions from playing to coaching basketball

By Craig Reed

Oregon Tech basketball coach Justin Parnell, far left, confers with officials during an Owls game. Photo by Liza Stafford, inside the lines photography.

Considering Justin Parnell slept with a basketball next to him in his younger days, it’s no surprise he has made the sport his career.

Justin recently finished his seventh season as the head men’s basketball coach at Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls. He was 27 when he was named to replace Danny Miles, OIT’s 45-year head coach, who retired after the 2015 to 2016 season.

“I’ll always be grateful for OIT taking a chance on me,” Justin says.

Justin, a former player and graduate at Sutherlin High School, was a player and assistant coach at OIT before being named the head coach.

“I’d never been a head coach and was named to take over a historic program,” he says. “It was pretty intimidating at the beginning, but it’s worked out.”

Justin admits it helped that in his first few years he and the basketball team had successful seasons. They reached the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament in his first 2 seasons, then reached the championship game in the 2018 to 2019 season. The NAIA is the governing body for athletic programs at small universities.

The recent 2022-23 season wasn’t quite as successful. The team lost two starters to injuries early for the rest of the season. The

Owls finished 14-15 overall. The Owls play in the Cascade Collegiate Conference, a 12-member league of schools in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. Justin’s 7-year OIT record is 143-62.

Justin’s basketball journey started on a concrete slab with a hoop next to his parents’ home east of Sutherlin. Duane and Sally Parnell remember many early mornings and late evenings when they could hear their son dribbling and shooting his basketball on the court below their second story bedroom window.

“I don’t know how many times he would wake us up with his dribbling,” Duane says. “After practice, he was always out there working on something.” Justin remembers playing on that home court against his older brother, Brian, and his brother’s friends.

“They beat the heck out of me growing up,” Justin says. “I won’t say I was the most skilled player, but I always thought I was tough.”

Justin played guard for OIT for 2 years. Photo courtesy of OIT.

Duane says when Brian’s buddies came over to play, Justin always wanted in.

“They just beat him up, but that made him tougher, made him better,” he says. “Eventually, they wanted him on their team. Justin had the drive. He was never completely satisfied. He always felt there was room for improvement.”

When he was a freshman at Sutherlin, Justin played two junior varsity games and then was moved up to the varsity squad by head coach Craig Stinnett. Justin was a varsity starter for the rest of that year and the next 3 before graduating in 2006. He earned all-league honors all four years, was his league’s player of the year his junior and senior years, and was first team all state for his last 2 years.

The only basketball scholarship offer Justin received was from Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho. He accepted it and played there for 2 years before transferring to OIT to be closer to home and play for Coach Miles. He was a 6-foot-4, 195-pound guard who helped the Hustlin’ Owls to the NAIA tournament’s round of 16. Justin was first team all league and earned All-American honorable mention recognition.

In his senior year, the Owls were ranked No. 1 in the NAIA poll. They won both their league and conference tournaments, but were upset in the round of 16. Justin was his league’s player of the year and was a first team All-America selection.

Justin graduated in 2010 with a bachelor’s in communication studies and a minor in coaching. In 2011, he married Joey, an OIT volleyball player. The two met in the school’s weight room their senior years.

During the next few years, Justin had 1-year stints as an assistant coach at OIT and as the junior varsity coach at Klamath Union High School, as the head boys coach at Lost River High School, assistant for the Clackamas Community College women’s team in Oregon City and then back at OIT as associate head coach before stepping up to the head position

Joey is also an OIT employee. She is an assistant professor for medical imaging technology and works one day a week at the local hospital. The couple have three children: Jase, 8; Rylie, 6; and Luke, 2.

Justin says he is grateful for the support he and his team have received from the Klamath community.

“Sometimes there is hesitation to come to Klamath Falls,” he says. “When we get Portland metro kids down here, there may not be the restaurants and shopping, but when they go back home, they can’t wait to get out of the traffic and get back here.”

OIT has a 98% graduation rate, with those students having a job in their fields within 6 months. The 2021 to 2022 team had an accumulative grade point average of 3.62, the best for an NAIA team. All of Justin’s teams have had GPAs of 3.3 or higher, earning each squad recognition as an NAIA scholar team. In Justin’s 7 years, only one basketball player hasn’t graduated.

“We sell the school and community support to players,” Justin says. “We have 2,000 fans at every game, the people know the kids and sometimes invite them over for dinner. Despite the timber and drought issues the community has had to deal with, this town has always bounced back. Oregon Tech provides stability for the town.”

Justin has been approached about other coaching positions, but he says Klamath Falls is a good place to raise his kids, and he wants to be loyal to the student/athletes he has recruited to the school.

“This community has been loyal to the basketball program, to the players, to my family and me, and we want to be loyal back to it,” he says.