KETTLE FALLS FOOTBALL: Justin Castens climbing the hill to head coaching

(BRANDON HANSEN/Chewelah Independent)

Justin Carstens was named the new head coach of the Kettle Falls Bulldogs. (Courtesy photo)

NEW HEAD COACH: Justin Carstens has traveled a long road to become the new head coach of Kettle Falls football…

Few can claim football is their passion and walk the walk like new Kettle Falls Head Football Coach Justin Carstens.

The Kettle Falls native played football for the Bulldogs, did student coaching in Colfax while in college and, just as his coaching career began – life threw a bad pass his way.

Health issues with his kidneys cropped up and he started dialysis after a failed transplant in 2015. He was 24 and moved back to his hometown.

While going through this, Carstens has been an assistant coach for former Kettle Falls coaches Curtis Corvino and Loren Finley.

“I hope some of the kids can relate to my life story and see that it takes a good attitude, effort and determination to be successful,” Carstens said. “Life is going to give you some adversity, and it all depends on how you react to it.”

Carstens received a successful kidney transplant in October of 2019 after years or prayers and support from the community.

“It has been really exciting, and I catch myself sometimes now and realize ‘oh I couldn’t be out doing this right now,’ because before the transplant I would have to go home early and be hooked up to a machine for 11 hours.”

Finley, a former Chewelah coach, took a position that would have made it difficult to continue coaching football, but he will remain athletic director at the school. He hands the whistle to Carstens who knows the system, knows the kids and knows there will be work to be done.

While the victories haven’t been there for the Bulldogs, one thing that Kettle Falls does have is a tremendous tradition in the sport and a community that gets behind its teams.

“Obviously I am a bit biased, but I really feel that football is extremely important to a town,” Carstens said. “It sets the tone for the rest of the year in athletics and really helps build a stable culture at the school.”

Last winter’s big run by the Kettle Falls Bulldogs boys basketball team shows this town gets behind their kids – with the Stevens County community filling the stands like it was a Trailblazers game.

Carstens said he wants to get the program back where when a team comes into Kettle Falls, they know they’re going to have a heck of a battle on their hands.

“Those old Kettle Falls and Chewelah games were brawls,” Carstens responded to The Independent reporter that was rambling about the good ol’ days of the Great Northern League. “There has been been some down years for us, but I want to be able to show up on Friday knowing it’s going to be a fight.”

Carstens’ workload will be more after taking over the team, and it will be a bit of uncharted territory in the unsure COVID-19 climate. But it’s also a dream fullfilled by Carstens – who grew up in Kettle Falls, has been around football all his life and now leading his hometown team.

“It is nice that I know the players and we have a relationship,” Carstens said. “The people that reached out to me after I got hired have been nothing but supportive.”

Kettle Falls has talent, that is evident in many sports. Carstens said in previous years that turnout has been down for the sport, but that he is going to work hard getting more athletes to turn out for the sport. The Bulldogs will return several assistant coaches as well.

When it comes to the coronavirus, Carstens said the team will just have to work with the restrictions and be as prepared as they can. This will mean limited practices, ways they can practice and an uncertain season – but it’s just something every football team will have to deal with.

The NE 2B North will exist anymore and it will just be one big NE 2B League in Eastern Washington. This means more league games – eight in all, and long trips to towns like Asotin. Carstens said while he would like the opportunity to have a few flex games on the schedule to play programs at the same level as Kettle Falls, he also pointed out small leagues can be lacking in fun, too.

“When I played, we had four or five teams in the league and we played each other twice in the season,” Carstens said. “So you’d beat a team week one and then weeks later you’d play with completely different circumstances and they would win. It made no sense sometimes and you’re just going to have problems no matter how you set the league up.”

Carstens said he will continue some of the things that coach Loren Finley began in the Kettle Falls program, while mixing some things up and probably simplifying some things for new kids coming into the program.

“Coach Finley is a tremendous motivator and I think I can motivate kids as well but I also hope to bring my consistent attitude to the team and try and keep those peaks and valleys in football more even,” he said.

The main thing is keeping everyone on the same page, especially with the COVID-19 stuff affecting things, he said, adding that he has been working closely with his coaching staff preparing for the season.

“We need to focus on things we can control,” Carstens said. “A lot of the times, it’s not what happens but how you react to something that happens that gives you the final result.”

Carstens also wanted to thank his former coaches Don Fox, Mike Morgan, Curtis Corvino and Loren Finley for teaching him so much about football and life. From game preparation, getting practice going, helmets and shoulder pads to every other minute detail a coach has to pay attention to, Carstens said he has learned a lot from those guys.

Kettle Falls is a football town, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who lives and breathes for Bulldog football than Carstens, so it looks like the River City found their guy.