ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
College basketball coaches search hither and yon to recruit players who can build or maintain a winning program from season to season.
Over the years, Tabor College certainly has benefited from the “hither” realm, as some of the best Trojans to come out of Hillsboro High School have made a significant collegiate impact a few blocks to the south as Bluejays.
Never has that hometown connection been more productive than in the past few years.
For the two seasons prior to this one, it was not uncommon to see four former Trojans on the floor at the same time for Bluejay men’s coach Don Brubacher-and at critical times of the ball game.
The same was true for women’s coach Rusty Allen, who on numerous occasions last season also had four former Trojans on the floor simultaneously-and has three in key roles again this season.
It isn’t unusual for high school students to attend a hometown college. But the contributions of HHS basketball players at Tabor may be unprecedented-at least in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
“I don’t know of any of the schools located in smaller towns that have had local players who have contributed nearly as much to their programs as the Hillsboro players have contributed here,” Brubacher said.
“In a lot of ways they’ve been the mainstays of our team,” Allen said. “They’ve been among the people who have shot the best for us, they’ve been the ones who have been able to compete a real high level.”
Why has the connection been so productive? The reasons may be as diverse as the players themselves.
In some cases, family connections may be a factor. In recent years, the Ratzlaff family has been a leading contributor (Taryn and Tesha for the women, Micah and Tyson for the men), as have the Brubachers (Scott, Grant and Andy), the Kroekers (Angela and Shannon) and the Heins (Carmen and Jill are first cousins).
A related factor is that in two cases-the Brubachers and the Kroekers-a parent is a full-time faculty member at Tabor, which adds a financial incentive for their children through tuition discounts.
Those reasons may account for why HHS athletes might come to Tabor, but it doesn’t necessarily answer why so many of them have made such an impact on the court.
A run of talented athletes
Certainly, the answer begins with athletes who have the raw skills to play at the collegiate level. Hillsboro High School has had more than its share through the years.
“It’s really unusual that a school the size of Hillsboro High School will graduate one or more players who are capable of playing at the college level,” Brubacher said. “That has been the case, of course, for many years now. We’re fortunate that they’ve had the talent that they’ve had.”
“You wouldn’t expect it to happen very often over a period of years-and maybe never.”
Another part of the answer is that athletes with natural abilities still need good coaching.
“To be a good player, you’ve got to understand spacing and movement and be able to anticipate,” Allen said. “That’s where coaching comes in. They’ve been taught a lot of those things.”
“I just feel I’ve gotten all of it-athletic ability, skills…and they understood enough about the game that they could fairly quickly make the transition to a higher level of play,” he added.
Though boys’ coach Darrel Knoll and girls’ coach Becky Carlson downplay their roles at HHS, they do say they try to help players develop their talents to the fullest.
For Knoll, that means emphasizing the fundamentals of the game.
“One of the things coaches have mentioned to me over the years-from various programs-is how fundamentally skilled we are on offense and defense, but especially defense,” he said. “We usually play pretty much in position, we know how to front cutters-those kinds of things.”
Carlson said she mixes her teaching of specific skills with large doses of personal encouragement.
“Most of the time I make kids believe in themselves, and I probably push them to be what they can be,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re a kid, you don’t realize how good you could be and you need somebody to push you and say, ‘That’s good, but here’s where you can improve.'”
A winning environment
Good athletes and good coaching usually leads to winning. That’s been the case at HHS, where Trojan girls have made 10 trips to the state tournament and won two titles during Carlson’s 19 seasons, and the boys have made nine trips to state and won three titles in 15 seasons under Knoll.
The expectation of excellence in high school is a breeding ground for success in college, too, Brubacher said.
“Hillsboro players always bring experience playing on teams that are expected to win,” he said. “They have played with very substantial pressure and are expected to contribute to a team effort to win.”
“That mental toughness of not only wanting to win, but also having experienced winning against good competition is a very important thing,” Allen added.
“If you look across the board at the players on our team, you would see that most of them come from places where they won a lot. It’s an intangible that you can’t hardly replace. Day after day, it makes a difference in a program.”
The coaches at both HHS and Tabor agree that beyond natural athletic ability and even good coaching, the one thing that has contributed to the success off HHS athletes in college is their own determination to improve their game year round.
“Those guys played a ton extra, other than in practice,” Knoll said of the HHS players who have contributed at Tabor. “And when they are playing, they’re not just playing for fun. They’re also working on the fundamental skills that hopefully they’ve been taught. They’ve been willing to spend the extra time to develop the skills.
“I think that’s been one of the differences.”
“I don’t think it’s much of what I do, actually,” she said. “I think it’s the kids in this town. They’re just great kids who are dedicated to their sport and to keeping in shape and staying on top of what they do.
“The girls I’ve had that have been (at Tabor) are definitely talented players. They love the game of basketball, and they’re going to give you everything they have.”
Some of the extra off-season works happens on the Tabor campus and against Tabor athletes. That, too, works in Tabor’s favor.
“(Hillsboro players) can step in and play more easily (at Tabor) because they’ve spent time on the court with what has now become their teammates,” Brubacher said.
Both Brubacher and Allen have been involved in off-season opportunities, such as camps and scrimmages, that help the coaches develop relationships with local players.
“I tend to know the Hillsboro players fairly well, better than most of the players we recruit,” Brubacher said.
Another factor that eases the transition is the similar style of basketball played at HHS and Tabor-a combination of motion offense and pressure defense.
“In recent years, there’s been quite a few similarities in the systems of play,” Brubacher said of the two programs. “(HHS players) know they have a really good background to step into the program here-a higher level of comfort than anywhere else they could go because they have been working with the system we use here.”
A few challenges
For all the positives, the HHS/ Tabor connection occasionally poses challenges, too.
For one thing, not every Hillsboro player who comes to Tabor achieves the level of success he or she-or even the coach-might have imagined.
Because of the proximity of family, that can generate tension, Brubacher said.
“That is always a lot more painful when it’s a local player than somebody who comes from someplace else,” he said. “It’s more painful for the player, it produces more stress for the program itself-and for me as a coach-than if the player comes from outside the immediate community.”
As a result, Brubacher said, he is more careful to recruit HHS players who are most likely to succeed-and tries to communicate carefully to those who may not have the ability to be impact players but want to participate in the program anyway.
Another problem is that athletes who come to Tabor from other places sometimes think HHS athletes have an unfair advantage.
“I think there are players at times who think the Hillsboro players are favored,” Brubacher said. “That’s been something we have to deal with.
“I try to treat everybody the same as much as I can-and yet you never treat all players the same,” he said. “You try to have them live by the same standards, but you cannot possibly treat every individual on the team exactly the same way and have the best possible result for the team.”
Let the kids decide
On the HHS side, Knoll and Carlson both said they don’t promote Tabor above other schools.
“When kids get ready to go to college, that’s a decision they have to make themselves,” said Carlson, who herself was a first-team All-KCAC performer at Tabor in 1980.
“If they would have a career-ending injury, they need to pick a college they would like to be in for reasons other than athletics. I just let them make that decision for themselves.”
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF