Over the past nine seasons, Tabor College head men’s basketball coach Micah Ratzlaff has built the program’s reputation as a consistently strong contender in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
During that time, the Bluejays boast the best record in the KCAC at 107 wins and 57 losses. In six of Ratzlaff’s nine seasons, Tabor has finished with a winning record.
The Bluejays have returned to the national spotlight in recent years by qualifying for the NAIA tournament the past three seasons. During that time the Bluejays claimed two regular-season KCAC titles and a pair of conference tournament titles.
Most recently, Ratzlaff’s 2015-16 team made history by achieving a school-record 30 wins. The Bluejays never lost a conference game at 20-0. Following a non-conference loss on New Year’s Day, the Bluejays rattled off 17 straight victories, capping the streak by winning the KCAC tournament championship.
The Bluejays reached as high as No. 6 in the NAIA Division II coaches’ Top 25 poll. Tabor suffered just its fourth loss of the season in the first round of the national tournament and ended the season ranked ninth in the postseason poll.
At the conclusion of the season, Ratzlaff earned KCAC Coach of the Year honors for the second consecutive year. He also was named the 2016 Kansas Basketball Coaches Association four-year college men’s Coach of the Year.
Building a winner
For Ratzlaff, building a winning program is a multi-faceted process that begins with recruiting—finding talented athletes who are excited about wearing a Bluejay uniform.
Once athletes commit to Tabor, the goal becomes retention. That, combined with more recruiting, has led to one of the key elements of Ratzlaff’s squads in recent years: depth.
“Retention has been super high in my program ever since I took the job,” he said. “So not only getting the kids to come to Tabor, but finding ways to keep them and trying to keep them happy, motivated and excited about Tabor College basketball is the biggest difference. We have guys that really want to win.”
Ratzlaff said although it can be a challenge to find leadership, having guys who are vocal, positive and lead by example is a huge benefit to the program.
“We’ve had a couple of those guys for the last three, four years,” he said. “That takes a lot of pressure off of me, where I don’t have to put the hammer down as much because they’re getting it from their own teammates.”
A firm believer that practice is where the majority of work lies in preparing his team for game day, Ratzlaff describes his practices as intense.
“I want to make sure guys are doing the little things,” he said. “I want to make sure guys are not skipping steps to what I want to accomplish. I want things to be extremely competitive, and I don’t want guys to ever take any plays off. I evaluate our players in practice on a daily basis.”
Tabor’s depth keeps practice competitive. Should the need arise, someone else is ready and waiting to step in.
“Guys are battling, they’re competing, because we have that depth,” Ratzlaff said. “If one guy messes up, either in the classroom or off the court or gets hurt, there’s another guy just waiting. I think it keeps people on the edge, knowing that they have to bring it every day.”
Ratzlaff said his coaching style has evolved over the years. On game days, he said he’s learned to control his emotions and employ a fairly laid-back approach.
“We take care of our business throughout the week in practice and do what we’ve got to do,” he said. “When you show up to the game, you get your team ready but then you let them go play.”
Aside from adjustments during timeouts, Ratzlaff’s philosophy is to save his coaching for outside the 40 minutes of competition on the court.
“I get a lot done before the game, I get a lot done at halftime, and we get a lot done at practice, but when the guys are playing, I want to be there to help them and to encourage them.
“I just expect that when we get to a game, our guys are prepared. They know what they need to do, and it’s up to them to go do it.”
Reflecting on the past nine years, Ratzlaff said two accomplishments come to mind as highlights.
The first was last year’s school-record 30-4 season. Ratzlaff said he enjoyed the guys he had in the program and credited the team’s succes to its chemistry and insatiable drive to win.
“That team wanted to be good,” he said. “They wanted to do things the right way. They wanted to work harder than our opponent. That right there, if you have any talent at all, you’re going to get some wins.”
Heading into the season, Ratzlaff’s strategy was increasing the tempo of the game, made possible by the depth of his bench.
The team enjoyed playing defense and excelling at doing the little things well.
“That team knew what it takes to win,” he said. “It wasn’t just like, ‘Oh we’re just better than them.’ It was, ‘We won because we did this harder, we did this better, and we were more unselfish.’ We made the extra pass and we boxed out. That’s what made that team special.”
The Bluejays’ will to win was evident in an 87-83 overtime victory over Bethel at home in January. Tabor fell behind by as many as 11 points and trailed by five with less than two and a half minutes left in regulation. A 7-2 rally capped by a last-second basket sent the game into overtime, and Tabor went on to win by four.
“We should’ve lost, but we didn’t,” Ratzlaff said. “We had two or three of those (games) at least. They just would never give up.”
Another highlight Ratzlaff said he’ll never forget is Tabor’s unlikely run through the KCAC tournament two years ago to earn his first bid to the national tournament in 2013-14.
The Bluejays were the No. 5 seed that year, defeating Saint Mary and top-seeded and nationally ranked Friends on their home courts before claiming the championship title in an overtime thriller over Sterling at Hartman Arena.
“We had a team that we knew was as good as anybody, but (we) just didn’t always get out of those guys what we probably should have,” Ratzlaff said. “Then toward the end of the year, they said, ‘All right, it’s time.’”
In his tenure at Tabor, Ratzlaff has coached four players who have received NAIA All-American recognition, including Damon Dechant (2010-11), Ryan Chippeaux (2012-13), Andrew Thomas (2014-15) and Lance Carter (2015-16).
The team will look a little different heading into Ratzlaff’s 10th season. Mark Fox has joined the Bluejay coaching staff and will serve as Ratzlaff’s assistant.
“I think it’s a really neat hire,” Ratzlaff said. “I really do. I think he’s a really good fit.”
In the years to come, the Bluejays’ success on the hardwood will rely on the continual process of building talent and depth.
“I tell them basketball doesn’t have to be your life, but if you’re going to play college basketball, it has to be a really big deal,’” Ratzlaff said. “It’s not just something you do on the side.”