There’s a trend happening right now at Ottumwa High School.
But it might not be the trend that first popped into your mind.
Anyone who supports or follows Ottumwa High athletics knows that the Bulldogs have seen a rather remarkable amount of turnover recently in its varsity head coaching positions. This list isn’t complete–I know I’m leaving out the turnover in the soccer positions, for instance–but just take a look at the head coaches that have made or will make their OHS coaching debut since late 2011 (dates given are the coaches’ first regular-season competition):
November 2011 – Kevin Patterson, girls basketball
August 2012 – Zach Pfantz, football
May 2013 – John Jaeger, baseball
November 2013 – Kevin Kanaskie, boys basketball
November 2013 – Jeremy Frueh, wrestling
If your first thought when you looked at that list was “gee, that’s a lot of coaching changes,” I don’t blame you, but that’s not the point. The trend I see is the kind of coaches that are being hired.
Athletic Director Tom Kopatich aleady left his mark on the Bulldogs through his long career coaching football, but it’s pretty clear he’s trying to put his stamp on this OHS era with his coaching hires. The amount of turnover in Ottumwa has given him a unique opportunity to point Bulldog athletics in a new direction.
So what’s the connection? The first trait these coaches share is that they’re young. I’m not quite 40 yet, and I believe all five coaches listed above are younger than me. Some of the coaches they replaced could also be considered young, but it’s still noteworthy that three of the five new coaches are getting their first varsity head job. Patterson and Pfantz had a little previous varsity head-coaching experience; both experienced brief, successful runs at lower-class schools. None of the five had ever run the varsity at a 4A/5A school.
The second trait, which goes hand-in-hand with the first, is energy. To a man, these new coaches are energetic. Patterson commands the bench and demands the best out of his players no matter the score. Pfantz gets fired up in his office just talking about an upcoming game. Jaeger came bounding over to introduce himself the first time we met, and couldn’t wait to open the season against the #1 team in the state. We haven’t seen Kanaskie in action yet, but he’s a former point guard who’s already said he wants to run an up-tempo style. As for Frueh, well, have you ever met a wrestling coach who wasn’t energetic and intense? I don’t believe there is such a thing as a laid-back wrestling coach.
The third trait, however, may be the most important. That’s a dedication to improving the program starting at the younger levels. On the most basic of levels, the challenge for OHS athletics is this: the Bulldogs play at the same classification as all of the schools that dwarf them in population base. Ottumwa will never have the same sheer number of potential athletes as Valley, Dowling, Ankeny or Waukee. Even the Des Moines public schools have an advantage in their potential ability to attract athletes from across the Metro area; build a successful program, as Des Moines East girls basketball has done, and talented athletes will try to find a way to get there.
All Ottumwa can do is get as many kids as it can into its youth sports programs, and give the kids they have the best possible training so that when they arrive in high school and join the varsity roster of their particular sport(s), they’re as prepared and as schooled in the game as they can possibly be. Other schools may have better natural athletes, or at least more of them, but OHS can overcome that by maximizing the potential of the athletes they do have, and that starts at the youth level. Some sports have done this well–look at the success of Bulldog softball–while other sports have not.
This is where the new guys come in. Pfantz checks in regularly with the Ottumwa sophomore, freshman, and 7th & 8th grade teams, and knows those levels are the key to building the kind of varsity football roster he needs. I had several conservations last basketball season with Patterson where he talked as much about the development on the freshman team as anything else. Jaeger coached the OHS sophomore baseball team last summer, so he knows something about developing players for the varsity. At his introductory press conference, Kanaskie talked–without even being asked–about improving youth basketball in Ottumwa. Frueh spent part of his press conference talking about sending his younger wrestlers to as many summer events as possible.
In short, they’ve all gotten the message: if you want your varsity teams to win, against the toughest competion in the state of Iowa, develop your youth program. I’d be willing to bet any coaching candidate who didn’t have some sort of vision for developing younger athletes in a program before they reached the varsity didn’t stand a chance in the final selection process.
Obviously, success won’t come overnight for any of these coaches (Patterson was an exception, winning a conference title with a great group of seniors in his first year, but the graduation of those six seniors left the cupboard pretty bare). Each one of them has a program at a different stage, and each of them will have unique challenges moving forward.
It’s what they have in common, though, that could make them great. Youth, energy and vision. They will pour everything they have into their teams, and try to motivate their players to do the same. Will they all be wildly successful and lead OHS into a golden athletic era? I’m not smart enough to answer or predict that, but they all have some key qualities that will give them the chance to do something special.