Don’t Scream

I am always amazed at how far female basketball in high schools and colleges has come in the 39 years I have spent in education.  In 1973, I heard a Catholic school in Hastings, NE had a really good girls’ basketball team.  The only problem for them was they had very few opponents.

At Humboldt High School, where I began my career in the schools, I officiated a few girls’ games.  Most of them ended with a score where neither team made it to 20 points.  There was one really good player on a team from Palmyra High School.  I don’t remember her name, but I’ll never forget the score of that game.  It was 66 – 6, with Humboldt on the short end of the score.  It’s a good thing I wasn’t paid, because no one in the crowd got their money’s worth.

As I moved to Milford High School, the quality of play gradually got better.  One glaring error, promoted by the school’s administration, was really lousy officiating.  A mechanic and an elementary teacher with black and white stripes were pretty common place at girls’ games.  No offense to mechanics and elementary teachers.

Milford had a pretty good girls’ team and they played a pretty talented team from Malcolm High School.  I was watching the game from the top row behind the Malcolm bench.  Sitting beside me was the parents of the Malcolm coach.  A couple of rows in front of me was the father of Milford’s best player.

There were very few fans in the stands, so you couldn’t burp without being heard on the opposite side.  Both fathers were constantly on the officials.  Finally, one of the officials had heard enough.  He gave the father of the Malcolm coach a technical foul.

The only problem was the Milford’s player’s father had done most of the yelling on that particular play.  Of course, the wronged father protested.  The over-sensitive official gave the poor guy a second technical and threw him out of the game. 

It was quite a sight; the red-faced father of the visiting coach walked out to the lobby, followed by an embarrassed wife and mother of the coach.  It still wasn’t over.  The coach and son of the ejected fan was really upset and stood up for his father.  The same guy with stripes quickly gave the coach two technical fouls and it was off to the showers for him, too.

Milford led by four points at that point, but after Milford made seven of eight free throws from the four technical fouls, they now found themselves with a double digit lead.  As with most girls’ programs in those early days, the assistant was some poor female English teacher that had only the responsibility of supervising the locker room.  Now it was her job to pick up the pieces and lead the Malcolm team back into the game.

The over-matched coach didn’t know where to begin.  It soon became a blow-out, although the margin wasn’t 60 points.  This is the profession I wanted to enter.

It wasn’t too many years later I found myself as the head coach of the Wilber-Clatonia Wolverines.  I took the job because I saw two 6-0 freshmen who had state championship written all over them.  I could handle that, even with a few 66 – 6 stinkers.  Just so my team had the 66.

What I didn’t realize is how much basketball I would have to teach.  About half of my players had only been on the court a few years.  Basketball terminology from a basketball-lifer like me was completely foreign to a bunch of my players. 

Don’t get me wrong, the core of good players knew basketball.  However, I probably had 20 players out for basketball, plus another 25 or so trying to play junior high basketball.  Some of their basketball IQ’s wasn’t sophisticated enough to know “playing in the paint” didn’t mean looking for the finger paints.

A few parents forced their poor daughter out for basketball, even if it was kicking and screaming.  Some were tall, some could run fast, some were great high jumpers, and a few knew what a defensive stance looked like.  However, if you told them to go to the “elbow” for a shooting drill, they couldn’t separate a body part from a 90 degree angle at the free throw line.

When I told some of my players to set a “pick on the block,” I would have to explain the blocks weren’t found in the medicine kit and neither was the ice “pick”.  Okay, so I am exaggerating.  However, no one wanted to be a “1” guard since they all thought any woman of any value wanted to be a “10”.

There were three factual events with that first team.  One of my first team rules was no screaming on the court.  My freshmen posts had nasty dispositions.  If they knocked one of the players that didn’t take it so seriously on the floor, a silly scream would occur.  I had to get rid of that habit.  It took threats, but pretty soon we grunted rather than screamed.

All male players at whatever level had to tuck in their jerseys.  I thought it was discriminatory to allow females to go un-tucked with no penalties.  I made my players tuck in their uniform tops and had severe penalties for a violation during a game.  As it turned out, I was way ahead of my time.

The best thing I did during my first year of coaching was creating a T-shirt that promoted toughness.  I still think it’s the best T-shirt I invented in all my years of coaching.  I had a sporting goods store find a screen print of the meanest Wolverine on the face of the earth.  It had to show a serious set of fangs and was drooling as it waited to tear apart its enemy.

 Below this monster, I took something straight out of a dictionary.  It said, “Wolverine – Pound for Pound, the Meanest Animal in the Wood!”  If you wore this green and white T-shirt that featured the “Meanest Animal in the Woods,” how could you not be tough?

Favorites without Their Wings

Most basketball coaches that have been coaching for a long time are a real pain to anyone around them because of the stories they tell.  I might have the biggest mouth of any of those coaches.  About any situation would inspire a story that involved one of my players and what they pulled during their playing days. 

I will be a pain in print and tell you about five of these players.  Four of them played for me at Doane College and one here at Northwest.  I’m not going to say they were my favorite players, although I could.  That would be offensive to the ones I didn’t mention.  Besides, coaches aren’t supposed to have favorites.  I don’t know if this has anything to do with it, but none of them wore their angel wings very well.

Near the beginning of my 15 years at Doane College, I recruited a bunch of talented post players.  Two of them doubled in volleyball.  One of those players was Staci Hass.   Staci was a 5-11 inside player.  She was unbelievably strong from working on her farm near Mead, NE.  A Doane recruiter went to visit her before she graduated from high school.  She made him take off his sports coat and help unload feed off a truck.  She wouldn’t talk basketball until the work was done.

Staci was an intimidator, too.  I heard a story once how she scared a freshman men’s basketball player as he took a short cut to his dorm after a late night practice.  Staci had chosen that exact short cut as a place she could relax with the distractions most college students use.  Staci scolded the freshman and told him never to use that short cut again.  I think he obeyed.

Her strong will, for the lack of a more positive term, stretched out on the team.  I had a really good team of young players that went on the road to play Morningside.  Back then, Morningside was a NCAA II team.  My team drove me nuts because no one would carry anything in from the vans but their sleepy selves.

I decided to prove a point.  I was the official trainer on road trips.  Staci was the first up to have her ankles taped.  However, since none of the players had brought in the medicine kit, there weren’t any supplies for the taping.  I told Staci she had two choices; she could play with no tape or go to the van and get the kit.  In 20 degree weather, Staci trudged to the van in bare feet and brought the tape to me.

From that day on, she was our official Road Manager.  The kit had to be in the gym or Staci would be accountable.  Two things happened; the kit was never left in the van and Staci never brought it in to the gym.  She made sure a poor freshman player had the job.  They better not forget or they faced the wrath of Staci Hass.  We made it a permanent position on the team for a junior player.  I think they still do it today.

Staci had her moments on the court, too.  She scored over 1,000 career points, pretty good statistics for a volleyball double.  Her most memorable game was when she scored a bunch of points in our first ever post season game.  We were playing Wingate University.  They were ranked second in the nation and had a 6-5 post player.  We were big underdogs. 

The big kid from Wingate didn’t intimidate Staci.  She might have only been 5-11, but she could throw her weight around.  Staci scored over 20 points and we upset the southern team by three points.

Also, in one of my first recruiting classes was an Omaha point guard, Lynn Waters.  Lynn could easily have started her freshman year.  She was the only legitimate point guard on the team.  To be real honest, Lynn was a pain-in-the butt to me.  She had a bad attitude and seemed to enjoy the social scene at Doane College more than basketball.

I was forced to start Dena Gosch, one of Lynn’s best friends at point.  Dena was a great shooting guard, but not point guard.  The team was loaded with talent, but without a point guard, we struggled with a 10 – 21 record.

My assistant coach, Karen Downing, and I sat down after the season and decided we had to corral the young talent.  We decided to get rid of the two worst attitudes on the team.  Lynn was one of those players.

I probably have only kicked four or five players off my teams in 33 years of coaching.  Lynn was one of those lucky players.  However, Lynn didn’t transfer from Doane to play somewhere else.  The next fall, Lynn came in my office and asked for a second chance.  During the off season, I had recruited a great point guard in Trudi Veerhusen.  I really didn’t need a bad attitude on the team, but Lynn talked me into it.

I put her with the walk-freshman that had no chance to make the team.  She stayed there for four or five weeks.  When real practices began, I never gave Lynn a smell at the top two teams.  To my shock and surprise, Lynn never complained and was playing great.  I should add she played as great as possible playing with kids that probably didn’t start on their high school team.

Finally, I moved Lynn to the back-up point guard position.  There was very little chance Lynn would ever start with future All-American, Trudi Veerhusen, in front of her.  It didn’t seem to matter to Lynn.  I’m not going to say she suddenly grew wings, but she did grow into a very good team player.

One game really sticks out for Lynn.  We were playing William Jewell in the Peru State College Classic.  Trudi had played a very poor half.  The game was close and it shouldn’t have been.  I benched Trudi to start the second half, thinking I would make my point and put her back in 90 seconds later.  Lynn played so well, Trudi only made it back into the game with 12 minutes left in the second half.  I only put Trudi back in because Lynn was exhausted.

Lynn never started a game her last three years at Doane.  She did something much more important; she became a team player.  We never won less than 24 games during Lynn’s final three years of eligibility and she was a big reason why.

Jessica Wilson was a post player that came to Doane shortly after Staci, Lynn and Trudi had graduated.  Jessica was a slender six-footer who was high-strung.  Jessica was the nervous type and settled her nerves by smoking.  She didn’t do it because it was cool to do.  Jessica smoked to calm her nervous condition.

I always was on her about the smoking.  Jessica had been a cross-country runner and was in great shape.  Smoking seemed the least likely vice for the kid from Wahoo, NE.  I swear, every time I ran into her when she was driving her car, she would have her left hand out an open window with a cigarette in her hand.  Busted!

Jessica could really play basketball.  She only had one type of shot; a fall-away jumper.  She could only turn one way; over her left shoulder, but no one could stop her.  She scored over 1,000 career points and won All-American honors.

The only person more quirky than Jessica was her mother.  She was an art teacher at Wahoo High School and very creative.  So creative, she often would write letters to me.  There was always a subliminal message on how she felt I was mistreating her daughter.  Sometimes, the message wasn’t so subliminal.

Getting these letters was unusual since her daughter started and played all the time.  After a while, I would just go up to Jessica’s mother and ask her about the letters.  One time, she hid behind her daughter hoping I wouldn’t find her.  I had my sights set on her and she explained, “I wanted to pull it out of the mailbox a second after I dropped it in.”  I didn’t believe a word of it.

I still have a wood block she made for all the players and coaches with their images hand painted on them.  It must have taken a long time to paint them.  I’m surprised mine didn’t have tiny horns on my head.

Another player from Wahoo that may indeed have had horns on her painting was Missy Divis.  Missy was one of the most off-the-wall players I ever coached.  She turned down at least one full ride to attend Doane College.  She was a really good player, but as her coach, I had to accept the whole package.

As a sophomore, she was obviously my starting guard, but she was really lazy in practices.  I started a less-talented freshman for the first game of the year.  A teary-eyed Missy came to me before the game, not believing she had lost her starting position to a freshman.

“She out-worked you,” I told Missy.  She countered with, “Why didn’t you tell me?”  My response was, “So if I told you, you would have worked harder?  Why weren’t you working hard on your own?”  I had her and she stomped off.

That night, she came off the bench to score 16 points and never lost her starting job the rest of her college career.  Although, I’m not sure her practice habits improve much.

The funniest incident involved Missy and another player, who stole Missy’s boyfriend.  It happened on Saturday night in the middle of a tournament in Hasting.  Both looked like death warmed over as they got on the van for our Sunday trip to Hastings.  I couldn’t believe that they had verbally fought most of the night over this guy.

Both also competed for the same position.  Despite sleep deprivation, Missy score almost 20 points, while her competitor for a certain man didn’t hit double figures.  Later, an accidental elbow from Missy put five stitches into that young lady’s head above her eyebrow.  Everyone said it was accidental; RIGHT!

Someone who was an absolute twin to Missy Divis was Meghan Brue, a 5-11 guard I had at Northwest.  Meghan had been a star on a state championship Iowa high school team.  She came to Northwest loaded with skill and loaded with attitude.  Like Jessica Wilson, Meghan was a smoker.  I think it was an addition, not a nervous habit.

Meghan scored the first bucket of the season her freshman year and kept scoring during her four years at Northwest.  Meghan was a good looking college kid.  She had a boyfriend that everyone said was a nice guy.  They said that because that was the only positive thing they could say about him.

Meghan and her boyfriend, who was from the same hometown, were always at each other’s throats.  Each year, we run a 24-hour, free throw marathon.  Meghan was shooting free throws about 2:30 in the morning.  In walked Meghan’s boyfriend with a bouquet of flowers.  They had a fight and the slightly tipsy boyfriend felt the sudden need to make-up.

Meghan probably made the greatest shot in women’s basketball history.  Her half-court shot again West Texas A & M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament vaulted the eighth-seeded Bearcats into the semifinal game.  She had hit two three-point field goals earlier in the overtime period before the half-court shot.  It ended the Texas’s team’s 45-game, home court winning streak.

In the press conference after the game, Meghan was asked if she had ever hit a bigger shot.  She informed the shocked reporter that she had hit a half-court shot in junior high to win a game.  It was no big deal to Meghan.

After Meghan graduated, I got a call from the late-sleeping, chain-smoking star player.  She told me she had a job in Omaha where she got up a 5 am every morning.  Meghan also informed me she had quit smoking and had a new boyfriend.  Just like the other four players mention, it was the perfect end to a quirky fairy-tale.

The Family Jewels

The roots of someone who gets into the area of education and coaching can usually be traced to their immediate family.  I am very proud of my family.  They homesteaded a farm in Gage County in Nebraska almost 150 years ago.  My brother and I still own that farm of 200 acres.  However, farming and coaching are not similar in any fashion unless you count the weather affecting basketball travel and farm ground at the same time. Continue reading

The Importance of Mentors

At some point in our lives, we all benefit from mentorship.  Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds.  For most of us, our first mentors were our parents.  As we progressed through life, mentors probably took the shape of teachers, coaches, pastors, community leaders, counselors and friends.  Last week Northwest held its commencement ceremonies.  I’m guessing that most, if not all, of the 700+ students that received their diplomas last Saturday could classify a professor, staff or community member in the category of someone who helped them on their journey to a degree.  I was actually able to read of several such relationships via our graduates’ comments on Facebook and Twitter.  The professors and instructors at Northwest do a tremendous job of mentoring their students throughout the college experience and well into their professional lives. Continue reading