With the 2019-20 season completed, Creston girls basketball looks to build off the momentum from the latter part of the decade as the culture surrounding the team shifts from low to high expectations.
The Panthers ended the 2010s with four winning seasons – 2014-16 saw the Panthers finish 12-11 and 13-9, respectively – with two coming at the end of the decade under current head coach Tony Neubauer.
With Brent Douma, Ryan McKim and Britt Roberts’ tenure ending in consecutive years, Neubauer took over in May of 2018. Since becoming the program leader, Creston finished its first two years under his control going 11-10 in 2018-19 and 14-10 in 2019-20.
“I think he’s done a great job and you hear that from the feedback of the kids,” said Creston athletic director Scott Driskell. “He’s got that characteristic as a coach that the girls are drawn to him and like him. ... I think that means they’re going to work hard for him.”
One of the senior leaders from the 2019-20 season, Sydney Hartsock, said before Neubauer, the girls “put our basketball program on our shoulders” because of the coaching turnover.
“I think for all of us it was definitely scary, because we all wanted to succeed in basketball,” Hartsock said on what it was like to play under three coaches in three years. “We didn’t want to keep being that same Creston team that wasn’t ever doing very well. It was scary because we never knew, ‘what if we have a bad season and our coach leaves us because of that?’ We just always had to kind of be together and keep strong through it all.”
In the back-to-back winning seasons, the program has seen the school’s all-time 5-on-5 leading scorer Brielle Baker, a chance to advance to state with a Regional final berth – ultimately losing to Red Oak 81-45 – and first-team all-state selection in Kelsey Fields and Baker.
Driskell said the girls seeing a revolving door of coaches over the years wasn’t about the lack of success in the program, but coaches having opportunities to go elsewhere.
Now, having the same coach leading the way has kept the morale from shifting high and low.
“It is nice to get somebody in there,” said Driskell. “Once you have that stability within a program with your coaching staff, the kids begin to understand and know what is expected. That’s a big part of becoming successful.”
The success stems from the girls knowing what to expect each day as the coaching staff remains the same.
“It’s just consistency,” Neubauer said. “You could have John Wooden, Rick Pitino, Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach go back-to-back-to-back as coaches, but it’s still hard because everybody does things a little differently. From my perspective, I followed two first-year coaches. When I look back on my first year coaching, you learn a lot. ... Consistency is such a big deal. It’s a huge difference on things where kids know what to expect.”
Baker, now a guard for Southwestern Community College, said the ever-changing head coach was a struggle for herself and those teams, but it brought the core group closer together.
“We’ve been playing together for as long as I can remember. Not just in basketball, but like every single sport, volleyball, softball,” Baker said. “So, I feel like we not only grew on the court, but have friendships that can last a lifetime.”
Despite the struggles on the floor, Driskell feels Baker’s group was special in setting the program up for the future.
“I think that was huge in setting the foundation,” Driskell said. “We live in a society now where kids especially, and it’s understandable, if they see they’re not going to play, they walk. That group really stuck together, and I think that group really started to develop and start the foundation of what it means to be successful.”
The 2018-19 seniors rallying together and the 2019-20 team making a Regional final, all play into the new mindset of Creston basketball.
Set high expectations.
Having two winning seasons before Neubauer, the idea of ending the season in the Wells Fargo Arena at the state tournament was not something the group would have believed. Now, with the
recent success, it’s become an achievable goal.
“When I first started talking about the state tournament in May of 2018 when I met with the kids first, they were looking at me like I was nuts,” Neubauer said.
For Baker, she was one of the girls giving Neubauer an odd look.
“Definitely something that we’re not used to since we’ve never been there,” Baker said through a laugh. “For us, we were trying to find someone who was looking to be there for more than one year. When going through the interviews, that was our main goal. Even though it was our last year, we didn’t want to have people go through the same things that we did.”
Now, with the team expecting more from themselves, the foundation for success has been laid. Baker and Hartsock spearheaded that change, and the idea of knowing they’re part of the cornerstone of Creston basketball is a special feeling.
Hartsock attended games as a young girl and idolized the athletes that came before her. She said being part of the foundation for the program’s future success is significant in her life.
“It feels great. I know when I was younger I was looking up to Natalie Mostek, Taylor Briley and Jenna Taylor and seeing all those girls, I always wanted to be like them,” Hartsock said. “I knew when I was in high school, I wanted little girls to look at me the way I looked at them.
“Having little girls come up to me after the games and telling me good job, or having their parents text me and stuff like that,” said Hartsock. “That just means more to me than the game itself because in the end, you’re not going to remember each and every game, but you’re going to remember all the little things.”
Baker, similar to Hartsock, feels the importance of her role extends beyond what happens in the gym, but in life.
“It definitely means a lot. Like (Hartsock) said, having those younger girls look up to you, it definitely means a lot,” Baker said. “Because what you do on the court means a lot, but what you do to impact their lives in life, it definitely means much more to you.”
Feeling the swing of high expectations and program success, Neubauer looks to make the Regional final finish a normal feeling.
“We try and make a point of that,” Neubauer said. “We talked about that a lot. Our first season was to start a tradition. Now, we want to start a tradition of winning basketball. Last year was relentless, moving forward. Just having that consistency, chasing and just being aggressive.”
For Driskell, he said the success is about creating a tradition that lasts, generating excitement for girls to join the program and keeping the bar set to the highest goal.
“Hopefully, that builds that legacy that each year we graduate four to seven girls within the program because then you start to see it grow success-wise too,” said Driskell. “Then, also the understanding that our expectations are the state tournament. For the longest time, just trying to have a winning season seemed out of reach. Now, I think it’s fully within reason to have the goal be at Wells Fargo Arena.”