by Jill Ragar Esfeld
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Bishop Ward High School graduates Jake Miller and Matt Orozco love basketball so much they’re willing to make some serious sacrifices for the sake of the game.
Or, more accurately, for the sake of students of Resurrection at the Cathedral Grade School, so they could learn to love the game, too.
Miller, a parishioner of Cathedral of St. Peter and a freshman at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, drove back and forth to Kansas City, Kan., three nights a week and on weekends to help coach Resurrection’s seventh/eighth-grade boys CYO team.
Orozco, a St. Agnes, Roeland Park, parishioner, shifted his work schedule to nights so he could make all the practices and games.
“I’d go to practice from 6:30-8:30 [three evenings a week] and after that I’d go straight to work, till five in the morning,” he said. “On weekends, if it was an 8 o’clock game or an afternoon game, I’d just stay up and wait for the game.”
Orozco is also a part-time student at Johnson County Community College. It’s hard to tell when he sleeps.
The sacrifices, though, paid off.
“When we took over the [seventh-grade] team last year, we had eight kids on the team and none of them wanted to play basketball past seventh grade,” said Miller. “This year we have 12 kids.”
The way these coaches figure it, that’s success, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.
“It’s not all about winning,” said Orozco. “It’s about grabbing the rebounds and everybody getting experience.”
Resurrection eighth-grader Andrew Huey, Miller’s neighbor and his incentive for coaching CYO, explained his coaches’ philosophy.
“They were happy if we gave 100 percent for the game,” he said, “if we tried our best.”
Miller and Orozco met playing basketball at Bishop Ward. Orozco, a year ahead of Miller, graduated in 2008.
The next year, when Miller was a senior, he happened to be talking with Andrew about CYO basketball.
“I knew he’d never had a real coach,” he said. “They got a new coach every year, and teachers had filled in, just so the kids could play.”
CYO rules require that coaches be 21 years old. But Miller wondered if he could coach the boys under the supervision of Andrew’s mother, Joanne Huey. He shared the idea with Orozco, who said he would be willing to help.
“So I told Joanne to take the team over,” said Miller. “We would actually coach, and we would just have her sit on the bench.”
“So, technically, I’m the head coach,” said Huey. “But this is really their baby. I’m just there because of the CYO technicality, and I’m happy to be there. I’m the team Mom.”
Ann Golubski, who coaches fifth- and sixth-grade teams at Resurrection, taught the boys the ropes of CYO basketball.
“Without her, I would not have understood how to do anything,” said Miller. “You know, it really is a job, and she kind of taught me and Matt the whole business side of it — how to schedule practices and all.”
The first season went well. Parents were pleased with the coaching style and filled the stands every week. Bishop Ward seniors and former graduates who knew Miller and Orozco also came to cheer the team.
“I think it meant so much to our boys to see the boys from high school there,” said Huey.
“Matt and Jake not only got support from the team parents and friends, but from their own parents,” she added. “Even Jake’s grandma would come to the games.”
As a matter of fact, Grandma Dottie became the team’s number one fan and inspiration — so much so that sometimes they would cheer her name when they broke from a huddle.
Miller’s mother, Brenda Miller, attended many of the team’s games and was especially proud of her son’s coaching style.
“They exemplified what CYO and coaching are supposed to be,” she said.
Huey agreed, saying that Miller and Orozco always stayed focused on the love of the game and teaching the fundamentals.
“We had some challenging games, some challenging calls,” she said. “Matt and Jake always kept their cool. They just wanted to make sure the kids understood what happened. They were always teaching along the way.”
Last year, the Resurrection team finished the season winning the third-place trophy on Miller’s 18th birthday.
“That was a good birthday present,” he said.
And that made it hard to let the team go.
“We thought it would just be a one year thing,” said Orozco. “But we decided to come back and do it again this year.”
“We talked about it and we decided . . . we kind of owed it to them to come back this year,” said Miller.
But this year, in addition to attending community college, Orozco was working a one-to-midnight shift. And Miller was a student at KU, living in Lawrence.
“So Matt switched his whole work schedule, which has been really hard on him,” said Miller. “And I’ve struggled coming back every night.”
“But I’ve never looked back and said it’s a bad idea,” he added. “It’s been hard at times, but I’ve always thought it was worth it.”
“They are good kids and players,” he said. “They’re really coachable. You can tell them something once, and they’ll do it right away. Plus, we get to play ball with them, too.”
Eighth-grader Tony Clark is happy his coaches decided to return
“I think they’re great coaches,” he said.
“They teach us a lot, and we have fun at practice.
“I always shot with two hands, and now I shoot with one hand. They taught me a lot of plays. And I never used my pivot foot before; they taught me that, too.”
And he thinks their youth is an advantage.
“They could teach us more, and they don’t forget stuff easily,” he said. “You know old people; they forget stuff.”
Because they had five players this year who had never touched a basketball, there were a lot of lessons that needed to be taught.
“Our ultimate goal was to teach them how to play, but to also teach them teamwork, because none of them had ever been part of a team before,” Miller said.
But Orozco and Miller also said they worked hard at keeping the team positive.
“There was a game they lost by three points,” recalled Miller. “Matt and I told them to keep their heads up because it wasn’t that they didn’t play well — they played their hardest; they did everything they could.
“It was just that the other team was better and the other team won. If that’s the way they’re going to lose, then that comes down on me and Matt.
“That doesn’t come down on the kids.”
Overall, it was a successful season.
“We did pretty good,” said Andrew. “We were five and two in the season and then, in the final tournament, we took fourth.”
And the team knew the coaches were pleased with those results.
“Because we gave it our 100 percent,” said Tony.
Huey, who had the opportunity to observe two seasons as “head coach,” couldn’t be more impressed with her “assistant” coaches.”
“I think what Matt and Jake have done for these boys is build up their character, build up their self-esteem, give them confidence — not just on the basketball court, but in life,” she said.
“These guys went beyond coaching. These guys became their friends,” she added.
Orozco admitted their players often confided in them during water breaks and asked for advice about everything from school grades to family problems.
“Actually we had one kid talk to us about a girl problem one time. It was funny,” he said. “Some of them don’t have older brothers they can talk to, and I’m glad they feel comfortable talking to us.”
The coaches also gave their team some spiritual guidance. If they saw a player at Mass, especially serving, they would start that player or give him extra playing time.
“We would always try to make them understand their faith comes first,” said Miller. “Tony had to leave from a game the other day because he had to go serve.”
And they encouraged their eighth-grade players to continue with Catholic education.
“There were a lot of kids talking about going to [a public school], and we would always tell them to go to Ward — never leave the Catholic education if they could,” said Miller.
This year, the last game of the season fell on Miller’s birthday once again, but the results were not the same.
“Even though we lost,” said Huey, “we all huddled around out in the parking lot, and parents came up to shake Jake’s and Matt’s hands and said, ‘Please come back again next year.’
“Jake’s grandma made cupcakes and brownies and packed a cooler of soda for the kids.”
Even after the game, talking it over with his mom, Miller felt nothing but pride.
“He said they did everything they were asked to do, and he wasn’t even upset that they lost,” she said. “He told me how well the team had done and that they could not have expected any more out of their boys.”
Andrew will graduate from Resurrection this year, but hopes to try out for basketball at Bishop Ward next year.
And what will he remember most from his CYO experience?
“To always play my hardest and not lose confidence in myself,” he said.