Wise Words for Coaches New (and Old)

September 13, 2013

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Every fall brings a new beginning for those who live by the high school calendar. And among those experiencing a new start are first-year high school coaches eager to begin their careers in educational athletics.

But what knowledge do they bring into their first coaching jobs? Most if not all played at the high school level, and many played at the college level as well. Some have served as assistants or coached youth teams. But high school coaching comes with its own set of challenges requiring an advanced set of skills – skills that are passed on annually as part of the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Coaches Advancement Program.

To assist in giving some of our new coaches a running start, we tapped into the knowledge of three of our Coaches Advancement Program instructors for advice they give those just starting out:

Jean LaClair began this fall 12th in MHSAA volleyball history with 861 wins since becoming a varsity head coach in 1987. She’s coached at Midland Dow, Pinconning and currently Bronson, where she’s also the athletic director and an assistant principal. She’s also served as an MHSAA official and contributed to the Women in Sports Leadership porgram. 

Ken Semelsberger is a recent inductee into the Michigan High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame and spent 33 years at Port Huron High School as a coach and athletic administrator. He also coached football at Detroit Servite and has led teams in basketball, softball and baseball. Semelsberger returned to the Port Huron sideline four seasons ago as the varsity’s line coach.

Penny Allen-Cook currently is an athletic consultant and in her fourth season coaching the Freeland varsity volleyball team. She also coached volleyball at Alma College, and is a former assistant commissioner of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. She served as an assistant athletic director at Alma College and director of compliance at Saginaw Valley State University.

All were asked the following questions during separate interviews. But not surprisingly, some of their answers were similar – especially those that emphasized dealing with parental pressures and why they as coaches continue to return to the sideline every year.

Many of their answers also segued well into each other, so we’ve blended them for one longer conversation filled with wisdom beneficial to new and veteran coaches alike.

What do you tell those who are interested in becoming high school coaches?

Semelsberger: “Basically, it’s one of the most fulfilling things you’ll ever do. And it’s also one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. I try to explain that it’s not just about going to practice and coaching kids today. That’s the easy part. It’s also preparing for practice, (gaining) the knowledge of what to do in certain situations from the game itself all the way to training procedures, injury procedures and liability issues. That’s all part of the coaching realm.”

LaClair: “My biggest concern with young coaches is them getting driven out by parents really early. You’ve got to have thick skin, and you’ve got to have great relationships with parents. You can’t be afraid to talk to parents.”

Allen-Cook: “Certainly to coach is an extremely rewarding thing to do. But you can’t get into it for the money. You get into it for the things that last for a lifetime. My first year I started coaching was back in 1986, and I’ve kept in touch with those kids. (Coaching) can’t be for money or wins and losses, but the differences you make in lives.”

Semelsberger: “Probably not until after the first year do you realize all that’s entailed in coaching. (Coaches) say, ‘Once I really got into and do it, after the first time, it was a lot more than I thought.’ They say, 'What can you tell me to help me?'”

How do you encourage coaches who have become frustrated with the profession?

Allen-Cook: “It’s easier to get discouraged nowadays more than it used to be, and a common thing that discourages is the parent involvement is at a different level than it ever was 20 years ago. The key is to remember, and it’s hard for young coaches who aren't parents, but you tell them to step back and imagine what it feels like if you were the parent.”

LaClair: “I do try to get all young coaches a mentor, someone to talk with. We all get frustrated; we all have to vent, and we need the right person to talk it through with and come up with alternative ways (of dealing with situations).”

Semelsberger: “The one thing I tell them is to remember that what’s most important out there is how they influence athletes. I want to see them doing positive things with our athletes, stressing grades and sportsmanship. I hired a hockey coach once, and I told him to clean up the program. I don’t care if you win; I want our grades to be good, community involvement, and the wins and losses will come. If you stay with it, hang in there, it will come.”

Allen-Cook: “If they approach things the right way, in as few years as four or five, if they stick it out, they’ll learn the positives outweigh the negatives. I’m always encouraging them to stick it out a few more years until they can figure out their true philosophy, why they want to coach.”

What specific situations do you tell new coaches to prepare for, and how?

LaClair: “For me as a coach, the parent/athlete meeting is mandatory. If a parent comes to me with a question during the year, I say, ‘Do you remember the parent/athlete meeting? We discussed that.’ It sets the tone and tells parents how proactive you are as a person, how organized and prepared you are.”

Semelsberger: “When you’re not coaching, when you’re sitting in the stands, the parents are friendly. But once you’re on the sideline, now you’re the coach, and that changes the dynamic of the relationship dramatically. I explain to (coaches) that my philosophy is I’m dealing with parents’ most precious item. You want to treat each one of those children like you’d want your kids to be treated. You don’t have to play everyone all the time, but treat (athletes) with respect, talk to them and let them know what’s going on, why a kid isn't playing, so the kid has an idea what’s going on.” 

Allen-Cook: “One of the best defenses is to be a student of whatever the game is they’re coaching so they can be seen as an expert all the time. Show it by going to clinics, reading up on things, and coming to practice with a true plan of what you’re doing every day. Parents are less likely to question if you know what you’re doing and they can see you’re a true student of the game and come every day prepared.”

LaClair: “Time management is critical. Especially for me, you need to have good practice plans, well thought out in advance so kids aren't standing around at all.”

Semelsberger: “Sometimes I tell (coaches) about reporters if the sport has a lot of reporters; always be positive, don’t be negative. ... (Also) I make sure they understand and follow the rules. Academics are the most important thing, so make sure every kid is eligible. And I tell them the most important people are secretaries and custodians. Get them on your side, and they’ll do anything for you.”

What advice do you offer coaches who also are balancing teaching or other jobs at the school?

LaClair: “Just over half of my (teachers are coaches), and that’s great. You can build a different type of relationship.”

Semelsberger: “Their number one job is being a teacher, and that’s always been the number one job. They can’t let the fact they coach take away from that. Classes are number one, and coaching comes after that.”

LaClair: “You have to think days and weeks ahead. I tell coaches who are also teachers that the weekends and a lot of Sundays are going to be for making lesson plans for the week, practice plans for the week. Then all they have to do is tweak them. Have a good plan and all you have to do is tweak, and you don’t have to do that for two hours on a Thursday night.”

Allen-Cook: “It’s a neat experience to be able to teach in other realms (like athletics). Unfortunately there are less and less teacher coaches.”

What keeps you coming back to coaching?

LaClair: “The kids. A lot of people think social media is an evil beast, and it can be. But what I love about it is I've been coaching a long time and I can keep up with former athletes all over the country, see baby pictures, things I wouldn't be able to do without social media.”

Allen-Cook: “I think once you’re a coach, you’re always a coach. It’s tough to get out of your blood. I enjoy the interaction with the young people. I’m an independent contractor now (Allen-Cook also has taught) so I have little interaction with student athletes anymore. It feels rewarding that in some way I’m having a positive impact.”

Semelsberger: “The kids, the athletes, just to watch them develop as human beings. We work hard with on our athletes being leaders in the (school) building; the first day of school our senior and junior football players were helping out the freshmen. If a kid was scared or something, trying to get where they needed to go, we had jerseys on and they knew if they saw a kid with a jersey on they could ask for help. To see those kids take on those roles ... I love watching the ninth graders come in as scared little kids and watch them leave as confident seniors going on to college or work or whatever they’ll do.”

PHOTOS: (Top) Penny Allen-Cook (second from left, back row) and her Freeland volleyball team celebrate last season's Class B District championship. (Click to see more from High School Sports Scene.) (Below) Bronson volleyball coach Jean LaClair speaks with some her players during one of her more than 1,000 games as a varsity head coach. (Photo courtesy of the Sturgis Journal.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for MHSAA.com

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for MHSAA.com in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)