PROPHESTSTOWN - Don Robinson spent Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon putting a group of Prophetstown girls through practices in anticipation of a tournament this weekend.
Which girls and which tournament are the surprising part of it.
Robinson is in his 37th year as head coach of the Prophetstown High School girls basketball team, and the Prophets are preparing for their first-ever appearance in the state tournament. They will take on IC Catholic in the Class 2A state tournament semifinals today at Redbird Arena in Normal.
Instead of fine-tuning the Prophetstown varsity, however, Robinson spent Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at the junior high, working with the seventh-grade team he also coaches. The seventh graders will be participating in a conference tournament on Saturday.
Robinson entrusted two assistant coaches, Troy Ottens and Arthur Wyckoff, to run varsity practices on Tuesday and Wednesday, while he worked with the younger group of girls.
“It’s pretty typical of everything about Coach Robinson in his willingness to trust other people, and they’ll do the right thing in his absence,” Wyckoff said.
“It’s the same thing he’s instilled in the girls in the program through all these years,” Wyckoff continued. “Just do the right thing, and everything will turn out all right.”
“He’s got a lot of confidence in me that I can do the job with the girls,” Ottens added. “Obviously running the whole program, he wants to be with those [seventh grade] girls as well.”
Ottens, 39, is a Prophetstown lifer. A 1992 PHS graduate, he played basketball and ran track for the Prophets, graduated from Western Illinois University in 1997, and returned to his hometown to coach and teach after that. He teaches social studies at the junior high.
Ottens has also coached basketball for 15 seasons – five at the eighth grade level, and the last 10 with the fresh-soph. Those teams have a 208-39 record in that span, with eight conference championships.
“Being from Prophetstown, this is the neatest thing I’ve been a part of,” Ottens said. “When I was a Prophetstown High School student, we never got this far. To experience this as a coach now, with the girls and our community, it’s really rewarding.”
Ottens primarily works with the Prophetstown guards, and helps Robinson with defensive strategies. Team defense is stressed.
“Trust – that’s a big word we use on defense,” Ottens said. “We always need to trust each other.”
Part of that trust is having players communicate with each other on the floor. On Monday night, junior guard Corrie Reiley had the tough task of shadowing El Paso-Gridley standout Rebekah Ehresman at the Monmouth Supersectional, but she didn’t have that burden alone.
Teammates were expected to call out all screens and provide whatever help was necessary.
“In big games, we tell the girls they’re not going to hear us,” Ottens said. “They’re going to have to communicate on the floor with each other, and they did a great job of that during the game.”
The 28-year-old Wyckoff works primarily with inside players. The Prophets’ two main posts, 5-foot-9 junior Clare Kramer and 5-7 senior Karlie Stafford, aren’t blessed with exceptional height, so he stresses fundamentals, having good footwork and being in proper position defensively.
“They’ve been pretty good about listening to the advice,” said Wyckoff, a 2003 graduate of Moline High School.
After graduating from Illinois State in 2009, Wyckoff began his teaching and coaching career at Amboy, but when his teaching position was eliminated, he landed at Prophetstown 4 years ago. He teaches high school English.
Upon his arrival in Prophetstown, he seemed an unlikely addition to the girls basketball staff, but is happy to be on board.
“I remember when I got interviewed and [Robinson] actually asked, ‘Well, what do you know about basketball?’ Wyckoff said. “I said, ‘Honestly, I played in fifth grade and nothing since then.’ He was still willing to give me a chance to help out, and it’s worked out. I’ve learned a lot more in 4 years than I have in any other time in my life.”
The second half of the season, when junior high hoops has overlapped, Robinson has occasionally had to turn the reins over to Ottens and Wyckoff. For the players, it’s no big deal.
“It’s almost like you don’t know that Mr. Robinson is missing,” senior guard Kaeli Kovarik said.
For Robinson, it’s all about staying true to the entire program. Just because the varsity is on the brink of a state title doesn’t mean it’s time to shirk his responsibilities with the seventh graders.
While overseeing a study hall earlier this week, a student asked Robinson if he was going to coach the seventh graders in the upcoming conference tournament. The answer was no, because he would be with the high school team.
The student then made a comment about the lack of success of this year’s seventh graders. Robinson, as is his wont, looked at the positive side of the situation.
“This senior group, when they had me as a seventh grade coach, we had a below-.500 record,” Robinson said. “Some kids laughed in study hall, ‘Hey coach, your seventh graders this year haven’t won.’ I said, ‘I know, but they’re improving. They’re getting better. They may not win today, but they may win someday.’”