Brief synopsis: Monona Grove High School in Wisconsin was a most unlikely candidate to make it to the 1998 high school basketball championships, referred to as “State.” Especially so since the coach is a very young rookie named Dan Zweifel, who replaced the veteran Coach Verhelst. Andy Witte, the team’s star player, will do anything to please Coach V.
By the time Andy entered seventh grade he became the high school varsity’s official scorekeeper. Volunteering for the team kept him under the wing of Coach Verhelst, whose influence was profound. His word was as sacred as the Bible – on and off the floor.
And this was not unique to just Andy, although nowhere was the relationship as pronounced. The kids worshipped their coach and he capitalized upon their affection to build athletes and fine human beings. It was conducive for the coach to be operating in hard-working, rural Middle America, where values and character resonate.
To Coach Verhelst, trash talking was as sinful as a stray pass – and in greater need of corrective training. His players were reared on the milk of sportsmanship, and he instilled these values through theory and example. The work he was doing was somewhat against the stream current in America in the 1990s. It was a time of endless distractions for youth all but addicted to television, video games, Nintendo, PlayStation, Pokemon, cell phones, the web, and drugs. To combat all of these diversions a larger-than-life attraction was indicated. This is what the coach provided, enabling kids to believe in themselves and in their ability to succeed.
Andy Witte entered Monona Grove High School in order to play varsity basketball under Coach Verhelst; coincidentally there is also a Wisconsin compulsory education law. Andy made the junior varsity team in his freshman year, which placed him where he always wanted to be – directly under Verhelst’s tutelage.
In Andy’s sophomore year he advanced to the starting line-up of the high school varsity team. Coach Verhelst tweaked Andy (as he did every player), never being satiated with “potential.” At the end of the school year there was a banquet held for Coach Verhelst, and when the evening was almost over, a determined 10th-grader approached the man he respected most on earth and asked reverentially, “Coach, how can I have just as good a season next year, as I did this?”
Verhelst looked at Andy with the solicitude of a physician confronted with a patient who was oblivious to his own terminal condition. After an awkward silence he instructed Witte to come to his office the next morning at 7:30.
At 7:25 in the morning, hair damp and spikey from a recent shower, Andy stood outside the coach’s office, all anticipation and eagerness. The high schooler timidly knocked on the door. “The coach always preaches seriousness,” Andy thought to himself, “and I guess I have displayed enough of it to earn this special meeting.” No other thought occurred to him as Coach V invited Andy in and sat him down.
“I am stepping down from varsity,” Verhelst said gravely, “and no one else knows this other than my family, and now you.” Immediately Andy’s eyes began to swim, and in short order he shed enough tears to keep a small aquarium of saltwater fish alive. Just as his career as a varsity player had embarked, the man that had brought him there was departing.
The coach attempted to console him, but a lump wedged itself in his throat. He wanted Andy to know that he had a great future ahead of himself as long as he maintained his discipline. But he couldn’t get the words out.
He therefore clutched his star player in a bear hug to convey that everything would be all right. But that sure wasn’t Andy’s take; his world had collapsed.
Twenty-five-year-old Dan Zweifel, the youngest head coach ever appointed in Wisconsin history, was appointed to build it back up. It was a daunting challenge for such a young rookie to fill such large and venerated shoes. He gave it his best shot, but things did not work out on the court.
Coach Z managed to get his squad fired up prior to the game, but in real-time the team couldn’t deliver. No matter how they moved the ball they always seemed to end up in a defensive vise and could not make themselves at home on the glass.
Zweifel tried to turn his youth and the fact that he was a local – one who had attended the very same high school, played on the varsity basketball team and had dated the sisters of some of his players – to his advantage. But none of this translated when it came to sinking baskets, nor did it mean a thing to a school board that only wanted to pay for a coach of a winning team.
With absolutely nothing to lose, including his employment for the coming year, Zweifel devised a strategy for a team that could not seem to catch an offensive rhythm and players that had protracted shooting slumps and ten-minute-long droughts. His solution, his only recourse, was defense.
(To be continued)
Chodesh Tov – have a pleasant month!
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