Getting a program turned around

One of the great mysteries of high school sports is turning around programs that have been in extended losing cycles.
Seeing the New Richmond girls basketball team back in the upper reaches of the Middle Border Conference standings for the first time in nearly a decade is a reminder of how difficult this challenge can be.
The Tigers have tried different coaches. Excellent athletes have come and gone. Yet nothing worked in pulling the Tigers out of the cycle of losses.
One of the reasons for the turnaround, as it is in most cases, is improved fundamentals. The Tiger girls were never short on effort while they were struggling over the past decade, but there were definite shortcomings in the team’s basic basketball skills.
Dedication by youth coaches has produced players with stronger basic skills. The shooting form is better and the ball handling skills are cleaner and more controlled. While the Tigers have had a highly effective defense this season, they no longer have to solely rely on defense to give them a chance to win.
I wish every Tiger fan who has had to watch the team through its struggles the past decade could have been at Friday’s win over Somerset. The Tigers thoroughly dominated a talented Somerset team. The Tiger defense created turnover after turnover. The difference is, now the offense is evolved enough to turn those turnovers into points. For Tiger fans, it must have been like watching a butterfly emerge from its cocoon.
Certainly there are other ingredients that are needed for a team to change its fortunes so drastically. Leadership is one of the most necessary ingredients and the seniors on the team have provided it. Kat Keller is the senior everyone recognizes, because of her phenomenal track success and her wildcat defensive mentality on the basketball court. Her classmates, Morgan Kelly, Amy Kukacka and Alison Martin, have all been equally important in the leadership aspect. For a team to turn around, the leaders have to be patient and encouraging. This group didn’t let the team fall into the traps that swallowed up some of the past teams.
Speaking of patience, coaches in these situations need tons of it. I remember covering Somerset basketball losing streaks that lasted for several years in the 1990s. There was significant turnover in the coaching staffs those years, because the losses ate away at the coaches’ psyches. Several of them just couldn’t take the self-imposed disappointment that can swallow up a coach.
New Richmond’s girls program has gone through its share of coaches too. Jeff Kanewischer has stuck it out through some lean years. He’s a man of faith and he’s remained steadfast that an emphasis on fundamentals would eventually turn the program around. With the younger talent in the Tiger system, this should be the first of several years where the Tigers can be competitive with the best teams in the MBC.