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Larson steps away from coaching middle school basketball

Players came and went for Larry Larson in 41 years of coaching basketball, but he was the one who remained in their memories years after playing for him.

“I think back on the coaches who made a difference, and he’s one of them,” said Mike Peschong, who played for Larson’s Kernel eighth-grade basketball team in the 1975-76 season.

Larson resigned from coaching basketball after the 2013-14 season, but will remain teaching and coaching middle school track and field.

“I felt like it was time to hand it over to somebody younger,” Larson, 63, said Wednesday. “There will be time to get the transition in place before I leave teaching down the road.”

Larson started coaching in high school, when he was asked to coach a team of fourth- and fifth-graders. He led their practices and took them to tournaments during his years at Forestburg High School.

After attending the University of South Dakota, Larson hoped his dream job was right around the corner — it was. Larson took a position with the Mitchell School District in 1972, teaching social studies and immediately began coaching. He began as an assistant to eighth-grade boys basketball coach Doug Timmer in 1972-73, eventually taking over the following year.

Coaching at the middle school level was appealing to Larson because he was able to connect with the players and enjoy the sport.

“The pressure isn’t the same as the high school level,” Larson said. “It’s quite different between the two. You get to learn about the kids and build relationships.”

The relationships built in the gym have held to this day, as former Kernels still remember playing for their eighth-grade coach. This is something Larson’s wife, Nita (Short), holds close when standing on the sidelines.

“We have made and kept friendships with players and parents over the years,” she said. “Having those former players approach him on the street and share good memories is what coaching is all about.”

Showing compassion

Not only did Larson have an impact on Peschong, he influenced others through his knowledge and attitude toward the game.

“The one thing I appreciated about Mr. Larson was he was really positive,” said Jordan Piper, who played for Larson in the 2004-05 season. “Even when we lost some games in a row, he didn’t let our bad results affect how he treated us.

“We were horrible and just lost another game and he could tell I was frustrated. He sat me down and told me not to be discouraged.”

During his start in the 1970s, Larson was more intense, like most young coaches are. Through four decades of guiding young players, he said his coaching style mellowed.

“The expectations didn’t change,” he said. “It was just that we had different kids and it wasn’t so much about winning as it was about fundamentals, developing skills and competing.”

Winning coach

Since Larson’s first year coaching a subvarsity team in the 1973-74 season, the Mitchell boys varsity team has won nine state state championships, all of which were under coach Gary Munsen.

Munsen said those championships wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t great coaches at the lower levels.

“Those middle school coaches, especially Larry because he was there for as long as I was, were great for the basketball program,” Munsen said. “They taught fundamentals of the game, which is so important at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels when those kids are learning to play team basketball.”

Peschong said Larson laid a good foundation for him and his peers before they moved on to play in high school. Peschong and the 1973-74 eighth-grade team took second in the season-ending Big 4 tournament, which includes teams from Mitchell, Huron, Watertown and Brookings.

“We were not an athletic group and we had some success later on, but a lot of that foundation was from our early coaches,” Peschong said. “He taught you a lot about the game.

“He was always designing plays, and even as an eighth-grader, I remember if it got down to a tight situation, he had good timeouts. You might not make the shot, but you got the look. The stuff he drew up always worked.”

In 41 years, Larson accrued a 309-199 record and won 15 Big 4 titles. The Kernels finished second six times, third 10 times and finished fourth eight times. There were two years in which the tournament was canceled due to weather (1989 and 2007).

He coached two teams to undefeated seasons in 1983 and 1992. Both of those groups went on to win a state championship at the varsity level.

Wes Morgan, who coaches the Kernel varsity girls basketball team, was a part of the 1983 undefeated team that went 10-0, winning the Big 4 tournament.

“We had a lot of fun that year,” Morgan said. “He was a good coach and helped me down the road in the things that I did, with playing and coaching.”

Several former players said Larson was a respected coach, and he pushed his players and developed them into good basketball players.

“I always heard horror stories about his conditioning before I played for him,” Piper said. “He ran us a lot but nothing crazy. We were always in shape, which helped us.”

Tyler Krome, who played for Larson in the 1998-99 season, said despite the tough practices, he enjoyed playing for him.

“You knew you were going to work hard, but you were going to have fun doing it,” Krome said. “Coach Larson was a good teacher of the game and he was definitely a good fit for the Mitchell system.”

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.