Knoll retires as coach and teacher after 35 years

Seth Driggers, Coach Darrel Knoll and Brent Driggers. Brent played on one of the first teams that Coach Knoll coached and his son Seth was on the last team that Knoll coached.
Coach Darrel Knoll was honored for his 35 years of coaching basketball in February. He is retiring from both coaching and teaching at the end of the current school year.
Coach Darrel Knoll poses with his basketball team from this year as well as his former players from over the years. He is retiring from both coaching and teaching at the end of the current school year.

There are not any other coaches in Marion County that could match the career of Hillsboro Coach Darrel Knoll.

Knoll coached for 35 years at Hillsboro High School with a winning record of 596-223. He and his teams made 15 State Tournament appearances, five Championships (Class 3A: 1991, 95, and 98, and Class 2A in 2021 and 2022), 2A Co-Championship (2020), three runner-up finishes (Class 3A: 1992, 97, and 99), three 3rd-place finishes (Class 3A: 1996, 2003, and 2004) and seven Sub-state Runner-up Finishes (2000, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2016, 2018, 2019).

He was named Kansas Coaches Association 1995 Basketball Coach of the Year, 1996 NFICA Section 5 Coach of the Year, Wichita Eagle All Class 1998 All State Coach of the Year, Topeka Capital Journal 2021 All Class All State Coach of the Year, KBCA 3A Coach of the Year (1991, 1995, 1998)

KBCA 2A Coach of the Year (2021 and 2022), KBCA All Star Game Coach (1991,1995, 1998, 2021 and 2022) and Sports in Kansas 2021 and 2022 2A Coach of the Year.

And all of it almost didn’t happen.

“Coaching wasn’t really even in my wheelhouse, but I was just trying to get a job out of college. Coaching was never something I had in mind or on my goals in any way,” said Knoll.

He applied for a Hillsboro Middle School social studies position right out of college in 1989.

“The one question I do remember is they asked me if I had to be a head coach, what sport would I choose? I said basketball would be my first choice. They asked me why since I had played football in college and I told them that my coach Dwight Goering had been really good and taught me a good grasp of the fundamentals and I think I could do well with that,” said Knoll.

He thought they were maybe looking for an assistant coach and had no idea there was an opening for the head coach.

Knoll said, “So that afternoon Dr. Brown called me and said I have good news or bad news depending on how you answer this question: ‘how would you like to be our head guys basketball coach?’ And I replied, ‘I think I will do a great job for you, Dr. Brown’.”

He said “Dr. Brown replied, ‘That is what I want to hear. You will be teaching middle school English’. And the rest is history.”

While Knoll hadn’t planned on coaching, he never once doubted his ability to do it since he grew up playing basketball and was always a heavy competitor.

Knoll started out early with a dream team of Craig Duerksen, Eric Jones, John Vogt, Damian Ratzlaff, Vaughn Jost and more, and they competed well.

“I had a good group to work with. That group in ’91 was really special and was on a mission to win. The competitive spirit of those guys year in and year out and the intensity of practice was really an incredible time,” said Knoll. “The gym would be packed to standing room only. They were tremendous competitors and got after it really hard.”

He said the ’91 championship will always be special because it was the first one.

Knoll also found his footing in teaching. He taught middle school English for 16 years, and then he moved to teach high school English classes. Eventually he also taught history in addition to the English classes until Clint Corby came on board as principal and decided he was doing too much and moved him to just history classes.

Knoll said the timing for the switch was good as he was doing a lot and feeling a bit overwhelmed.

“I can’t let myself not do a good job at something which can be a good or bad thing,” he said.

The switch worked well and many students find Knoll to be one of their best teachers.

“I have learned more from Mr. Knoll’s class than any others this year. I have learned so much,” said senior Moriah Jost.

Knoll has had many students come back after high school over the years and give him positive feedback.

“I have students from the last three years tell me that they learned a lot in my history classes and I’ve had parents tell me their kids come back after their first year of college saying they didn’t realize how much they had learned and they knew so much more than their classmates.,” said Knoll. “The best compliments I got when I was teaching English 4 (senior year) were from students who would say they had just used their notes from high school for their college classes. I’ve had a lot of students tell me they used what I taught them in college.”

The teaching aspect of his job has been just as important as the role of coach.

“I don’t want to walk out of here with anyone saying ‘Knoll was just a coach’. I’ve always supported all of the other programs here. I just want us to do the best we can. That’s really what it comes down to,” said Knoll.

Just like with his students, Knoll tried to pull the best out of his players.

“I want my teams and guys to play to their full potential so when I think back to all the teams that I have, the ones I look most fondly at are the ones who played to their full potential. So that isn’t necessarily just state champions and runner-ups but the ones that really tried hard, improved a lot and competed. That’s always been the big thing—work to be your best. The wins and losses will take care of themselves. I wanted to always focus on making sure of who we are, make sure we are fundamentally sound and make sure we are executing our stuff. And if we can do all that stuff, then we are going to be the best we can be. The only people we have any control over is ourselves and the effort we put out. That’s always been my message to my teams,” said Knoll.

He can point to a few key lessons he learned during his 35 years of coaching.

“I can look back to those three runner-up games we had and I can point to a key thing that cost us that game and most of those things that were out of our control—a call that didn’t go our way, the ball bouncing the wrong way or whatever that may be. In basketball the game often comes down to one or two possessions,” said Knoll. But for a lot of the teams I have had, the way that we had prepared ourselves well and were confident we were going to make the shot when we took it, helped us be successful.”

Another lesson that Knoll took to heart was trusting his instinct.

“Throughout my career, any time I didn’t go with my gut feeling, it was never the right decision. Never right. I can’t think of one time that I went against my gut feeling that it worked out,” said Knoll. “So the challenges have always been that I’m paid to put out the best possible team that I can put on the court. So I have to make some tough decisions about who I am playing and when I am playing them. So that part is hard. I want to do the best I can for that but I also want all the guys on the team to feel successful and valued. That has always been my goal.”

Every season has its special moments and Knoll is not one to compare teams.

“I have so many tremendously good teams and each era brings its own set of challenges, personalities and skill sets,” he said.

Knoll has really enjoyed the times at state and the teams that participated.

“They are all so special and you can’t really pick a favorite. At times, I would have people say to me ‘well, we’ve been there so many times’ and my response was ‘but these guys haven’t, and this should be the special time for them. Everyone is special,” said Knoll.

Relationships seem to be key for Knoll as he always brings the conversation back around to that. He said it is what he will miss most when he retires.

“I always hope that I coach my players up in basketball and then in the classroom, I do the best I can for them to be the best they can be. I hope the relationships are good,” said Knoll.

“It’s not a one-way street on this deal. You learn from your players. You grow because of what they do and try to push them to be the best they can be while they push you to be the best you can be.

Some relationships have come full circle, “Kyle Kroeker played for me and then came back to teach here so he could work with me,” said Knoll.

Kroeker will be attempting to fill the very large shoes left behind by Knoll when he takes over as head basketball coach next year.

Kroeker, who played from ’02-’06, said, “When you think of Hillsboro Basketball, you will always think about success, tradition and Coach Knoll. I was blessed to be coached by him and honored to coach with him. So much of who I am as a coach is due to his influence. Coach always stressed the little things. He desired to make us better basketball players, but more importantly better men. I will never forget statements like, ‘Don’t just run the play, execute it’ or ‘Take the extra motion out.’

He went on to say, “Coaching with him these last 6 years gave me another level of appreciation for the way he cares for his players. The extra work he put in always amazed me whether it was laundry, film study, sweeping the floor and the list goes on. Coach Knoll has impacted so many people over these 35 years. He will always be “Coach” to me.”

Many of Knoll’s other players have many positive things to say about him as well.

“Outside of my family, coach Knoll had the biggest influence on my growing up years. For 4 years, I saw a level of commitment that made him, and the teams he coached, great. He held his teams to high standards. Always focusing on improvement and never settling for just good enough. With this came a lot of wins, nearly 600,” said Eric Driggers who played for Knoll in the late 90s. “Congratulations, Coach. You should be proud of all you have accomplished on the court and the lives you touched off of it.”

Micah Ratzlaff, who played from 1994-1998, said, “Coach Knoll is a great coach. His attention to detail and love for the game are what make him really impressive. He wants the best out of whatever team he is dealt. Great players always make a coach look good, but there are so many little things throughout a game, season, practice and preparation that play a huge part in winning. He is really good at expecting his team to know what they are up against and understanding the game plan each night. This attitude has given his teams a chance to compete night in and night out.”

Eric Jones, who played from 1988-1991 and was one of the first players Knoll coached, said, “When Knoll came in ’89 we were probably a little skeptical at first getting a new coach who never had coached a game. But it was clear even before the season started that he was fully committed to making things go right, winning and putting in the time to make it happen. He was always willing to go the extra mile, opening the weight room or gym for me and others at some very late hours to enable us to improve our game and athleticism, and for that I am extraordinarily grateful. When we beat a highly ranked Hesston team our first game out, we kinda knew we had a good thing going. Knoll’s focus on doing the little things correctly on the court has enabled him to be successful over time and through talent cycles. I very much appreciate Knoll as a coach and friend.”

Knoll has also enjoyed the relationships he has built with other coaches and professionals over the year through speaking at clinics or just competing against them.

Some of the coaches from our toughest games and I have built a real respect for each other. I still talk to many of them and they stop in to say hi if they come for tournaments. We’ve also had a lot of high-level coaches in our gym over the years.

As far as what is next, Knoll said he doesn’t have any set plans and is open to whatever happens.

“There is a certain identity that came with coaching and the hours of teaching, so now there is a little bit of figuring out who I am without all of that. I’m open to quite a few things,” Knoll said.

Knoll set this retirement date a long time ago to coincide with his youngest son Joe’s graduation from Bethel College.

“I knew Joe was gonna graduate in 2023 and that is when I wanted to be able to retire from what I am currently doing and be able to re-evaluate and do some things I haven’t been able to do. Basketball is a long season with no Thanksgiving break and limited Christmas break, lots of time Spring break is taken if you play post-season. So being able to do some other things is an option. I don’t know if I am totally done in the education field, but for now, I’ll just take a break and evaluate. The ability to have some freedom is nice,” he said.

Knoll points out that coaching is a high-stress job and, if you are teaching right, it has its stresses as well. He is ready to let go of some of that stress and settle into the next thing.

“It’s been a great career in the sense that something I never envisioned myself doing has probably become the greatest thing I have ever done because it made me extend myself, get out and meet other people and develop relationships around the state that I never would have had without being a coach,” said Knoll. “I think I can say I put out my best effort and left it all on the court.”

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