More than winning drives coach but win is what she does
The last thing I felt like doing was going to a basketball game Saturday night. Larry Bennet and I covered the Lutheran West boys game Friday night. We spent all morning and part of the afternoon at the WSC swim meet which we left directly to go to the Bay-Fairview girls basketball. Since we planned on covering the North Olmsted-Rocky River hokcey game on Sunday, I was prepared to just watch TV on Saturday night.
Then Karen Wittrock, the winningest girls basketball coach in the history of the state of Ohio, and my P.E. teacher my freshman year of high school, yelled out my name in the Rocky River High School parking lot. She was there to scout the Lady Pirates. Not only has Coach Wittrock won 636 games as Lutheran West’s girls baksetball coach, it appears she is defeating cancer as well. This summer she worked her basketball camps right after a chemo treatment. Then she directed her boys golf team to a conference title while finishing up the chemo. Already a legend, her golf captains (both key players on the boys basketball team who have won 39 regular season games in a row) said she inspired them more than any coach they ever had and made that golf team closer than any other. And she resisted all my efforts to write about it. She is a woman of faith not publicity.
In the parking lot, Coach Wittrock asked how I was doing when it should have been the other way around. I told her we would be at her games against Fairview and River in February. She mentioned she was surprised we weren’t going to her game that night since it was for the division title. I said I was tired. (Which now sounds really lame after what she has been through) She told me to get some sleep.
So of course, now I had to go to the game. I didn’t go happy though. I showed up late and missed the first basket of the game. I pouted most of the first quarter. It was an ugly game. Clearview played a very physical game bordering on being called something else. I was sitting near their fans ,and a few of them were just nasty. I wanted to go home.
Then I noticed something.
Lutheran West was playing really hard.
I had avoided them all year. I heard the talent pool had dried up. Their record was around .500. Lutheran West just doesn’t have .500 teams. Two years ago, River had their second-best record of all time. That same record would have been the second worst in school history at West.
But this current team played hard. Clearview was almost literally punching them in the mouth. The Clippers were called for 27 fouls and committed twice that many. Their coach yelled, screamed and threatened his players. One complaint of Coach Wittrock is that she is too nice and too respectful to referees. But in this game, she fought tooth and nail for her team while still keeping her dignity. (You would be surprised at how hard that is for some coaches.) I watched her since I was 14 years old and I have never seen her get so into a game. And I knew why.
When I asked her about it afterwards, her answer was “It is good to be a coach.”
Her current team has no stars. In fact during one tirade at his team, the opposing coach told his team they were “----ing away the title to two sophomores and a freshman point guard.” Coach Wittrock has two seniors, but neither starts or play big minutes. But the two of them along with all of their teammates, gave everything they had on the court in the minutes they got.
I have watched veteran teams this year make lazy pass after lazy pass. It insults the game. West committed a ton of turnovers — many head scratchers — but every one was made out of passion or youthful aggression. But most of the time when they did commit a turnover, they stole the ball right back, often to just toss it away. But this young team never stopped playing hard.
As a coach, you have to love teams like that. And you want them to win so bad. You coach with all your heart because you don’t want to let them down. I would rather being on the short end of ballgames with players who respect the game though their hard work and passion than have a winning record with athletes who get by on talent.
When I mentioned to Coach Wittrock that this team had a lot of good basketball ahead of it, she replied, “Yes, they do, and I want to be there for it.”
If anyone ever tells me again that it is time for Coach Wittrock to retire, although she will disapprove of my violence, be prepared to be punched in the mouth.
May she coach forever.