Van Laecken credits players, community with success
PARKSTON -- When you spend more than three decades coaching at the same school, you're bound to rack up your fair share of wins. But 500? It's a number Rob Van Laecken said he never dreamed of approaching when he took over the Parkston girls' bas...
PARKSTON -- When you spend more than three decades coaching at the same school, you're bound to rack up your fair share of wins.
But 500? It's a number Rob Van Laecken said he never dreamed of approaching when he took over the Parkston girls' basketball program in 1977, the third year of the program's existence. In fact, it was a feat that had been accomplished only once before until Van Laecken reached that number with Thursday's thrilling win over Wagner.
With 551 wins, Fred Tibbetts, who coached at Jefferson and Sioux Falls Roosevelt, is still the all-time leader, and Van Laecken said he is honored to even be mentioned in the same category.
"He's probably the greatest coach in South Dakota," Van Laecken said of Tibbetts, who died last year after a bout with colon cancer. "He's won a lot of state championships. I went to college with him, and I was great friends with him. I just feel very, very humbled to cross the same bridge that he crossed."
Van Laecken said he couldn't say right now how long he expects to keep coaching and whether he'll make a run at Tibbetts' record, but he'll know when the time is right to hang it up.
"I'm going to take it year by year, and the day I don't want to come to practice anymore, I'm going to get out," he said. "I want to be fair to the kids, and I'm not going to leave the cupboard bare."
The cupboard appears to be stocked right now, as Van Laecken has guided his team -- which doesn't include a single senior -- to a 10-0 start. The young team is a perfect example of why Van Laecken said he's been able to reach 500 wins.
Lost to graduation after last season were guard Maggie Malloy, the school's all-time leading scorer who finished only 25 points shy of 2,000 in her career, and Kelli Fiegen, another 1,000-point scorer who ranks seventh on the school's charts. But here the Trojans are, once again, reloaded and ranked No. 3 in the state.
"The program continues year after year, and the kids take a lot of pride in the things we do," Van Laecken said.
Winning is what the Trojans do, and a lot of it. Van Laecken has won 21 district titles in his first 31 years, and took his team to the state tournament nine times, his best finish being third in 1989.
In 1977, Van Laecken took over a team that had gone 12-28 in its first two years of existence and guided it to a 15-5 finish that year. The next year, his team went 20-2 and won conference and district titles, and the rest is history.
"I came here to be the head girls track coach, and I was an assistant football coach for two years, but when this program opened up, I said I was going to go for it," Van Laecken said. "As you can see, it's been a fantastic ride."
Only twice in his career has Van Laecken finished below .500, and he's won 20 or more games seven times, and 15 or more games 20 times.
"You kind of sit back and think, 'how can you sustain doing that year after year after year?' " Van Laecken said "It's about the kids. It's been that way for a long time. You talk about the kids that graduated, but you wait for the next group to come. There's always somebody ready to step in and take their spots.
"I've had great kids since I came here, great community support, great assistant coaches. It's been a combination of everything. It's not just about me. It's about the people I've been surrounded by."
The players that surround Van Laecken seem happy to be there as well. Based on their enthusiastic reaction after Thursday's milestone 500th win, it seemed they were as proud to be a part of the accomplishment as Van Laecken himself.
"He just brings out the best in us, and always cares about us on and off the court," said Emma Murtha, Van Laecken's most veteran player, a junior who has started since her freshman year. "We really wanted this for him, and we worked as hard as we could."
Van Laecken said it's that type of relationship with the players, the school and the community that has kept him in Parkston for 32 years.
"That doesn't happen very often anymore," Van Laecken said. "There's not a better community to raise a family in than Parkston. I had two or three chances to leave this school, but I wouldn't leave it, and I still wouldn't now."