Alan Dell

Hoops culture changing in East Manatee

Changing a culture is a monumental task. You need the heart of a warrior and the vision of a soothsayer while being immune to rejection.

To borrow a phrase from John Wooden, you need to believe that success is never final and failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.

Matt Nesser, Tina Hadley and Chris Kawcak share those traits in one form or another.

It has enabled them to build something from what many would call a vast wasteland.

Athletics in East Manatee County are known for football, soccer and baseball on the boys side and soccer and softball for girls.

Nesser, Hadley and Kawcak coach basketball, which means they operate in a culture different than most of the athletes who walk the halls at their schools. In the beginning, they had to struggle to stay afloat in a sea of apathy.

It makes what this trio has done so impressive.

Heading into the stretch run of the season, the Lakewood Ranch girls are 16-6, the boys are 14-6 and Nesser’s Braden River team is 15-5.

What all three of these coaches have in common is a tireless work ethic. Each of them puts in 12 months a year at their craft, though the only financial compensation they get is their miniscule coaching supplement. They take their teams to summer camps and coach them in offseason leagues.

“If you want to be good, it’s a year-round thing,” Nesser says.

He has been the Braden River boys basketball coach since the program started six years ago. With only freshmen and sophomores on his varsity, he won one game his first season, then four, and then eight. Last year, the Pirates had their first winning record at 16-9.

Nesser hopes to see the day when the students at his school won’t go to sleep at night until they know if their basketball team won.

“I don’t know if I can change the culture, but the crowds are getting better,” says Nesser, who coached college basketball for 14 years before coming to Braden River.

He left college to add stability to a nomadic lifestyle that is common among college basketball coaches. It took an adjustment to coach high school kids, but Nesser has proved to be very adaptable.

“You have to change in how you relate to players,” he says. “You deal with more parents in high school. The only parent contact I had in college is when I went for a home visit to recruit a player. In college, you get to know kids while you are recruiting them. Here, you get the players who come to your school and then develop a relationship with them.”

Hadley had her best season last year when the Mustangs went 17-10. The Southeast High product, who played under John Harder, still has a shortage of players five years into the program. But she is getting the most out of what she has.

“Last year’s team was my most talented,” Hadley says. “This is my most cerebral and disciplined, and that is what I would rather have. It means the program is finally getting to where I want it. When I first arrived, it was hard to get the girls to do preseason conditioning and play basketball during the offseason.”

Players started to buy into what Hadley was selling last season, and this year she had her biggest turnouts for offseason conditioning drills.

“Basketball is a year-round sport and to have a successful program, you need to play as much as possible,” Hadley says. “It’s been a hard sell here. For girls, this is traditionally a soccer and softball area. I still have a problem with numbers and have only eight players on the varsity, but they understand what it takes to win and are willing to do it. I am finally getting kids who are willing to dedicate themselves to the game.”

The Lakewood Ranch boys had a brief run of success when Lecory Ruffin, the program’s career scoring leader, played during the mid-2000s. But Kawcak, in his third year, took his lumps with losing records his first two years.

“When I first came here, it was tough. You are trying to change a culture,” Kawcak says. “You are trying to get them to understand what it takes to be successful. They’ve got to learn how to compete and push each other in practice and play hard every time they step on the court. We talk about a lot of things that it takes to be a winner, like they’ve got to get the right amount of sleep. There has to be a commitment to the whole package.”

Of course, good players help, but they are not the cure-all if they don’t come with a commitment.

Braden River has a nice inside duo with 6-5 Travon Young and 6-6 Jeff Casseus, who are complemented by guard Tre Bryant, a junior with star potential.

Kawcak inherited a nice trio of transfers in Brian Cobb, Chaz Grady and Nigel Edwards to go with returning veterans Jordan Baker, Tim Greenamoyer and Brett Hanewich.

Hadley has three girls averaging double figures in Tiffany Waters, Gabby Diaz-Granados and forward/center Loni Shamble, who leads the team on the boards.

All that talent sparked this Renaissance, but a change in attitude has been the key.