Former Lady Rams coach found dead
Mike West led basketball team to state four times

COVINGTON - The Union County girls basketball program was handed a heavy blow with the sudden death of a former Newton Lady Rams girls basketball and girls soccer coach.

Mike West was found dead on a hiking trail in north Georgia. Union County Schools Superintendent Tommy Stephens said a search team found the 42-year-old Thursday morning near Blairsville. He said West went hiking alone Wednesday and never returned home.

Union County Sheriff's Investigator Mark Cecci said authorities received a call from West's wife, who was concerned when she returned from out of town Wednesday night and saw that her husband was not home.

Cecci says authorities believe West had a heart attack, but his body has been sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab to determine the official cause of death. No foul play is suspected.

West, 42, left Newton after the 2004 season. While at Newton, he compiled 141 wins and four trips to the state tournament. He also made it to the Sweet 16 twice, once in the 1998-99 season and again in his final season at Newton.

In his eight seasons at Newton, West had eight players take it to the next level, including two Division I players.

The players making it to the upper echelon were Lakeia Stokes, who went to Clemson, and current Lady Rams head basketball coach Tiffani Johnson, who played at Appalachian State.

"I don't think he knew how much he touched our lives as players. Me and my teammates could pick out some situation where he helped us be a better person, not dealing with basketball," Johnson said. "Whether it was with our home life, grades or even when we had boyfriend problems, he was there. I don't think he knew how much of a positive impact he had on all of his players."

What made West a good coach was his concern for the individual outside the confines of the field of play. His players always knew that their best interest was what mattered the most.

As a result, he was able to push his players to their utmost abilities where others may have failed.

"He had a way to get that relationship with each player that made each player want to work for him and do whatever he asked," Johnson said.

"He was a hard coach, but he was a loving coach. You could definitely tell that he was not only concerned how you did as a player, but how you were outside of basketball. He was concerned with all the girls and our personal lives. He kept close relations with our parents. Even if he disagreed with the parents, they were both a team and they both cared about us."

West was named the Citizen Girls Basketball Coach of the Year for the 2000 and 2003 seasons.

He took the Union County Lady Panthers from three wins in his first two years to a trip to the first round of the Class AA state playoffs this past season.

West didn't have any experience on the soccer field, but his teams were always competitive.

Although the Lady Rams never made the playoffs - primarily due to their area opponents that included Heritage, Salem, Rockdale and Clarke Central - they were always in the middle of it all.

"If Mike West was a part of any athletic team they were going to be competitive. That's one thing about him. He didn't know anything about soccer, but he did really well," Lady Rams head soccer coach Mary Roach said. "He got stuff out of kids that they didn't know they had. The ones that had talent, he pushed them hard enough to get them to another level.

"I can't put him in a category, he just does what he does. He's a fierce competitor, that's the best way to describe him. And he did not like to lose."

Funeral arrangements are being made through Cochran's Funeral Home in Blairsville.

Visitation is from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. The funeral will be held at the First Baptist Church at 2 p.m. Monday.

In lieu of flowers, a memorial fund has been established for the West family at United Community Bank.

Donations may be made to the Coach Mike West Memorial Fund, c/o United Community Bank, P.O. Box 398, Blairsville, GA 30514. The phone number is 706-745-2151.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Manny Fils can be reached at manny.fils@newtoncitizen.com.