EAGLE — Jeff Ranstrom has an assortment of coaching polos tucked away in his dresser drawer.
The Eagle boys basketball coach has green, white and black ones with the distinguishable Mustang emblem embroidered on the front. But there is one polo that’s closest to his heart — figuratively and literally. It’s gray and stitched in place of the Eagle logo are the words, “Jesse Ranstrom Memorial Classic.”
The shirt represents Ranstrom’s late son who died unexpectedly four years ago at just three and a half months old. Ranstrom, who quit coaching and pondered never returning following the tragedy, now leads Eagle into its first state tournament appearance in seven years today.
Eagle (11-10) plays Madison (23-3) at 3 p.m. in the opening round of the 5A state tournament at the Ford Idaho Center.
“It’s really an amazing deal,” assistant and former Eagle head coach Dennis Kerfoot said. “I’m still shocked that he’s been able to make that transition because he had been totally out of coaching when he applied for this job. But that’s why he’s a great man.”
Jesse Ranstrom was Jeff and Ivory Ranstrom’s third child. He was born at 10:54 a.m. on Nov 11, 2014 and weighed 9 pounds, 8 ounces.
“He was kind of perfect,” Ivory said. “He was a really sweet baby.”
His birth coincided with Jeff being named the Eagle junior varsity coach. He had spent the season before as the freshman coach for his alma mater after successful playing career at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, and Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, Oregon.
Jeff played for the Mustangs from 2002-05 and was a three-year starter. He earned both All-5A Southern Idaho Conference and All-State honors during his final two seasons. Jeff also led Eagle to its first ever state title game in 2004. The Mustangs lost 62-37 to Borah in the championship.
The success had translated into a promising coach career. But a few weeks after that junior varsity season, it happened.
It was Feb. 27, 2015. Jeff was the first one up. He quietly slipped out of the covers as to not disturb Ivory who was sleeping right next to him. Jeff then walked over to his son’s crib where he made a devastating discovery.
Jesse was motionless lying face down.
Jeff immediately performed CPR. But with every passing breath and pump, the cruel realization that his son was gone set in.
So he cradled and carried him over to the bed where he had to deliver the news no mother should ever have to hear.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop reliving that day,” Ivory said.
Jeff then placed the most difficult phone call of his life to 911.
Paramedics and firemen arrived shortly after to take his son away.
“It was just kind of a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness really,” Jeff said. “There was nothing at that point I could do.”
An autopsy was conducted in the following days. It was revealed that Jesse’s brain, heart and lungs were all perfectly healthy. He had just suddenly stopped breathing, so it was ruled a case of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome.
Jeff resigned as the junior varsity coach and focused on his family.
“Personally, I felt like I missed a lot of his life because he was born basically two days before tryouts and then I coached for the three months of his life,” Jeff said. “That weighed really heavy on my mind. So I was content being out of coaching. I had no intention of coming back to the game.”
But it wasn’t easy.
He watched as the Mustangs struggled. They won just 14 games combined during his two-year absence from the sidelines from 2015-17.
When the varsity job officially opened up in the spring of 2017, he didn’t apply — at first.
That was until he suddenly woke up in the middle of the night a few days later.
“My wife and I had gone to bed talking about how I wasn’t going to apply,” Jeff said. “But then I just woke up and it was like a light bulb or a flash of lightning like, ‘I don’t care what you think you want to do, this is what you need to do.’ I definitely felt it was God’s plans for us.”
He didn’t even go back to sleep. Jeff instead spent the rest of the night going over interview material and the application process.
Jeff was hired in April by Eagle High School Principal Terry Beck.
“He was eager to get back and I think after everything he went through, deserved the opportunity,” Beck said. “He’s certainly made the most of it. He’s used his experiences to make it work for our kids and our community.”
The new job, though, wasn’t without its growing pains.
While he took the Mustangs from seven to nine wins in his first season last year, they were still losing by more than 15 points per game. It resulted in them missing the postseason for the sixth year in a row.
However, the state tournament drought finally came to an end this season thanks to a couple of high profile overtime wins. Eagle knocked off not one, but two state tournament qualifying teams from last year in Boise and Centennial in the District III Tournament.
The Mustangs defeated the Braves 60-57 in double overtime before claiming the state berth with a 56-50 overtime win over Centennial on Feb. 19. The ticket-punching win came nearly four years to the day of Jesse’s death.
“It’s tough for me to even comprehend it just because it’s something that you can only relate to if it has happened to you,” junior guard Tanner Hayhurst said. “But he’s such an inspiration because he is a family man and we know that. It shows how much he cares about us and wants us to succeed. It makes you want to work harder for him on the court.”
Jeff and his family just celebrated their son’s life again. They call the date of his passing, “Jesse’s Day.”
Jeff, his wife, along with their four other children, Gene (8), Elijah (6), Pammy Jo (3) and Turner (7 months), took a family picture on Wednesday. And right in the middle of that photo was Elijah holding up a picture of Jesse in a big brown frame.
His memory is also kept alive with the Jesse Ranstrom Memorial Classic. The sophomore basketball tournament just finished its second year on Dec. 27-29. It featured 12 teams that each played three games and the proceeds of the tournament fund a scholarship for a player at the end of the year.
Jesse will also be represented by his father and the rest of the Eagle boys basketball team today at state. The Mustangs are looking for their first tournament win in eight years. They haven’t reached a final since 2010 and have never won a state title.
While Jeff is planning to wear a suit and tie for the duration of the tournament, the 32-year-old will have a change of clothes if the moment calls for it.
A jacket this time with the words “Jesse Ranstrom Memorial Classic” on that same front pocket.
“My family and I have been through some very hard times in our lives, but we have been able to endure them,” Jeff said. “My experiences as an athlete, my faith and my upbringing have helped shape my ability to persevere. I want my players to learn those same lessons and see the rewards that are available for those who can push through hard times.”