Long-time Westerners’ coach makes final play

Posted June 27, 2019 at 5:00 am

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By Julie Ann Madden

“Excellence is the unlimited ability to improve the quality of what you have to offer.”

It’s Akron-Westfield Boys’ Basketball Head Coach Jon Harris’ favorite quote.

It’s one of the legacies he hopes he left for Westerner players as he has handed in his ‘retiring” resignation to the Akron-Westfield School Board.

“I’d originally thought I was in no hurry to retire,” Harris told The Akron Hometowner. “I thought perhaps I’d retire when (my wife) Lisa retires from teaching at A-W next year.”

“I decided this spring I should step aside now,” he said. “I’d always told myself if a new teacher came to Akron-Westfield who was qualified and wanting to coach boys’ basketball that I would step aside.”

A-W Industrial Technology teacher Jeff Drent, who just finished his first year at A-W, is his replacement.

“That’s why I decided to step aside at this time,” said Harris. “Who knows what the future holds…perhaps I’ll help out in some way in the future. We’ll see…Maybe when grandkids get up there. Emma is 8, Reese, 6, and Case, 4.”

“I enjoy being with the kids,” he said. “I’ll miss the camaraderie amongst the coaches — the Coaching Fraternity.”

“I’ve always tried to coach with more than just the next game in mind,” said Harris. “I believe coaching is another classroom. Hopefully you teach the kids and prepare the kids for their future lives — anything we can teach the kids through sports that can improve their lives in any way is well worth it. They are our future — not only our community’s but the whole world — and we need to help them to find the right path.”

“It’s definitely going to be different come November when I should be running to basketball practices,” he said. “Hopefully I don’t feel the void too much. I’ve spent a lot of hours over the years — had a lot of sleepless nights wondering what can we do, what do we need to do — watching game films, studying the game of basketball.”

It was the mid-1980s when A-W Boys’ Basketball Coach Craig Parkinson and Coach Todd Colt asked Harris to consider coaching a youth basketball team in an effort to enhance A-W’s basketball programs.

Harris treasures a signed basketball he received in 1987 from one of his first fifth-sixth grade teams. Members signing the basketball were Matt Caskey, Darin Frerichs, Phil Johnson, Matt Knapp, Lee Reoh, Chad Stolpe, Neal Utesch, and Tim Wilken.

In 1999, Harris coached a team, which included his son, Nathan.

“We slowly got more youth involved,” said Harris, explaining in 2000, he and Lisa founded the Westerner Shoot-Out for Grades 5-8 boys, which was a tournament held annually in February or March until 2016 when too few youth and lack of volunteers ended it.

Along with Jon and Lisa, Roger Heyl, Roger Oetken, Sandy Koch, and Dan and LeeAnn Tindall were instrumental in the tournament’s success.

“Basketball has never been — ever — a high priority in the community,” said Harris, adding not even back when he was in school. “That makes it more difficult. If you drive around town, you don’t see people shooting baskets very often. We’re trying to change that but it’s tough.”

“Today kids have so many other things they can do,” he said. “They don’t want to shoot baskets all summer long, and that’s what it takes — shooting baskets.”

Harris’ basketball coaching career began as an assistant coach to Coach Craig Parkinson with the 1987-1988 season. That year the varsity Westerners shared the conference championship title with the Hinton Blackhawks. It was A-W’s first ever conference title. In addition, the boys tied or set 14 new records. According to the 1988 Norka yearbook, the Westerners won 10 straight games before losing to state-bound Maurice-Orange City in the Class 1A District Tourney.

Varsity team members were Mark Anderson, Mark Beller, Tony Caskey, Daimon Cundiff, Jeremy Easton, Jerad Higman, Jim James, Mike Kenny, Pat Knecht, Greg McInnis, David Olson, Mike Stoos, Craig Wilken, and David Wren.

Harris was an assistant coach to five varsity head coaches: Craig Parkinson, Doug Bundy, Shane Paben, who is head coach at Bellevue University now; Todd Colt, and Craig Doty, now Emporia State University head coach.

For the 1995-1996 season, Harris was the Westerners’ interim head coach. Then he returned to the assistant coaching position until the 2010-2011 season when he became A-W’s head basketball coach.

Harris said he tried to take “bits and pieces” from every coach he encountered — learning from them and implementing things he thought might work in the Westerner program.

Having the boys wear dress shirts and ties on game days and giving them a daily quote on the practice schedule were two he gleamed from Paben.

Harris had three assistant coaches: Nathan Roberts, Travis Miller and Gordy Johnson.

“We’ve had some very good games with two teams that are somewhat perennial powerhouses in our area,” said Harris, naming South O’Brien and Remsen-St. Mary’s, both state tournament competitors.

One game that stands out was at South O’Brien. We were struggling, said Harris, noting at the time the Westerners hadn’t won a game all that season. “It’s tough to play at South O’Brien. The kids worked out a game plan all week, ran it well, playing their hearts out and came away with a win and upset South O’Brien.”

“We broke our losing streak,” he said. “That was really a high point in our season and an emotional victory for us to finally get the monkey off our back and move forward.”

“I always felt like our teams got better as the year went on,” said Harris. “That was always our goal — to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year and I think, for the most part, we accomplished that goal…all you can expect from your kids is that they give their best; show respect to their teammates, opponents, the officials; and hopefully you have success along the way.”

With those expectations, Harris said one needs to expect much out of themselves before they can expect it out of others.

“Hopefully I touched the lives of many of my players and have left them with something that they can carry forward with them,” said Harris.

“I’ll miss roaming the (basketball) sidelines but I’ll continue to bleed red and black,” he said, noting his plays were named mostly after college teams.

The team ran the “X” a lot to get a three-point shot for Connor Heyl and Nick Jacobs; “Raiders” to get a lob play to Austin Allard and Carter Drent; and the “Butler,” which Harris called by tapping his behind, for Conner Anderson.

Coach Craig Doty tweeted student athletes should say “Thank You” constantly.

“I believe our kids live by that quite well,” said Harris. “I’ve often heard them, for example, thanking the bus driver when we get back from a trip. “I think we have some of the most outstanding youth in our school system.”

“I believe a good school system is the lifeline of any community,” said Harris, “and I’m thankful I was fortunate enough to be a small part of it.”

Harris, who graduated from Akron High School in 1979 and earned an Associate of Arts degree at Waldorf Junior College in Forest City and a Bachelor’s degree at South Dakota State University in Agriculture, thanks Gordy Johnson, his assistant coach the last few years.

“I’d like to thank (Principal) Derek Briggs, the administration, (Athletic Director/Coach) Todd Colt, and all the other staff at Akron-Westfield for allowing me the opportunity and for helping myself along with our youth in all the ways that they do,” said Harris. “I thank Lisa and my family. Coaches spend a lot of time people don’t think about — the sacrifices families make being apart. I certainly appreciate their understanding and help along the way.”

“I’ll definitely have more free time and maybe less stress this winter as well,” said Harris, who is undecided as to whether he will continue as football statistician this fall.

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