Van Laecken, state's all-time girls' basketball wins leader, retiring
PARKSTON -- Rob Van Laecken is selfless.
That’s generally known throughout Parkston, a town where Van Laecken put together an impressive career and became the winningest high school girls’ basketball coach in the state with 593 wins in 37 years.
He’s been a staple on the Trojans’ sideline each year since 1977, but the longtime coach is calling it a career. The 61-year-old Van Laecken has submitted his retirement papers to the Parkston School Board, effective at the end of the school year.
“They always say when you decide to retire, you can tell it’s time and you don’t know how you can explain that,” Van Laecken told The Daily Republic on Wednesday afternoon before practice. “But I do have that feeling. The teaching, it’s time to go a different course. I still love the coaching.”
During a discussion Wednesday looking back at his career, Van Laecken was not interested in his personal accomplishments like the 10 state tournament appearances. To him, his win total and tenure are just numbers.
The memories that stick out for Van Laecken are the faces, the coaches, and especially the players who have suited up for him.
“Rob is a humble man who doesn’t want to take credit for anything,” Parkston Superintendent Shayne McIntosh said. “He’s always going to give credit to the kids. I know I’ll miss him.”
Van Laecken has been in education for 40 years, including 39 with Parkston. He’s mostly known for his success as a girls’ basketball coach, but he’s also the district’s activities director and coached track, football and even middle-school boys’ basketball for one year.
He started his career in Corona, where he was the assistant boys’ basketball coach.
Kathy (Mogck) Digerness was a senior on Van Laecken’s first Parkston girls’ team who graduated in 1978. She said Van Laecken has always put the team first, which she knew early on would make him a good coach.
“He puts the players first and knows they are the ones who put in the time and the effort,” said Digerness, who now lives in Black Hawk.
Van Laecken will finish his career with only three losing seasons in 37 years. He’s coached 17 all-state players and has had 13 girls top the 1,000-point mark. He first brought a team to the state tournament in 1981, when Parkston played in Class B. Since then, the school has made nine state tournaments, including qualifying six times in eight years from 1985 to 1992.
Jim Bridge, Hanson High School girls’ basketball coach, was winless in his first 11 games against Van Laecken’s Parkston teams in the mid-1980s and early ’90s.
Bridge, who is now in his 28th year, was on the opposite bench the night Van Laecken hit career win No. 551 in December 2011. The win was a milestone for Van Laecken, tying his former college schoolmate, Fred Tibbetts, for the most wins in South Dakota girls’ high school basketball history.
Bridge put Van Laecken in the same category of great South Dakota basketball coaches as Mitchell’s Gary Munsen, Armour’s Burnell Glanzer and Custer’s Larry Luitjens. Munsen and Glanzer retired in recent years, and Luitjens, a boys’ coach, announced his retirement this year and holds the record for wins by a South Dakota high school basketball coach with 742.
“There isn’t going to be a lot of those people anymore; it’s just too hard,” Bridge said. “Things are changing so much. There’s so much demand and unrealistic expectations of people out there. I have a lot of respect for those people who have done it for a lot of years, and he’s done it all at the same school.”
Van Laecken is the second coach in the history of the Parkston girls’ basketball program. The first was Gene Inhofer, who started the program in the 1970s.
In 2012, Van Laecken led Parkston through a playoff run that ended in the Class A state championship game, where the team lost to St. Thomas More. It was his only appearance in a state championship game.
To earn a spot in the title game, Parkston knocked off then-No. 1 Wagner in the district championship and then had two one-point victories in the first two rounds of the state tournament.
Guard Marie Malloy was the team’s leader that year, but she was unable to play for most of the championship game when she suffered a knee injury in the early minutes. Malloy, who started seeing varsity time as a seventh-grader, said it was her coach who helped get through the tough time.
“We were so close my senior year,” said the sophomore guard for the University of Sioux Falls. “I wish we could have got it for him.”
Van Laecken is retiring alongside his wife, Joanne, who has been an educational aid in Parkston and has worked with the school district for 24 years. The Van Laeckens plan to continue living in Parkston through retirement, but the coach will spend more time hunting, fishing and with family.
This year, Van Laecken’s team is 5-11 and has only two regular-season home games left, one of which is tonight against Lennox. The final game is Feb. 20 against Mount Vernon/Plankinton.
With games and practices winding down in his career, Van Laecken is trying to stay the course, he said.
He wants to go into his final game like the other hundreds he’s coached.
And that’s by putting the players before himself.
“It’s rewarding watching them start out and grow, not only as athletes but as young adults,” Van Laecken said. “They’re good in the classroom, on the court, on the track and in the band room. They’re involved in many things.
“Of all the teams we’ve had here, I don’t think we’ve had a team that was not academic all-state. How can you not become attached to students like that? They’re great kids.”