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Ellsworth girls basketball: Making progress with positivity and competitiveness

Ellsworth senior Caitlin Dahl said she has high hopes for her last year as a Panther, but will remain positive alongside her supportive teammates and coaches no matter what happens throughout the season. Photo submitted by Caitlin Dahl

The current Ellsworth girls basketball coaching staff knew what they were getting into when they took the program over at the start of the 2016-2017 season.

Head coach Jason Janke began his run with the girls basketball program following a one-win 2015-2016 Panthers season.

"We had a rebuilding situation that we all three walked into," Janke said of himself and his assistant coaches, Jill Hutcheson and Marcia Jahnke.

But Janke and his assistant coaches looked past the previous year's 1-19 record and helped their players who were unfamiliar with success recognize their own potential.

The Panthers worked their way to an improved 5-18 record under Janke's coaching.

"We were competitive in many more games than they are accustomed to being," Janke said of last year's season, "and a lot of that just comes down to [the coaching staff] believing in [the players] throughout games and also realizing that sometimes it's not going to go our way."

As much as the Panthers improved under Janke's coaching, most would still consider a five-win season far from ideal.

The Panthers know they have a long way to go before they'll be able to produce a winning record, but the team's optimism helps them appreciate the small victories they accomplish along the way to success.

One of those victories: the team's ability to compete.

"There was a way new environment compared to our last five years," senior Olivia Matzek said of the team's first season with coach Janke. "We had more fight in us, and you could tell as the season progressed. People knew like, 'Wow, Ellsworth is coming to play,' because the previous years we'd get pushed around."

"He made us feel way more accountable for ourselves to make ourselves better," senior Caitlin Dahl said. "He made us push each other, and he pushed us in a way that we would respond well to. Some of us like to be yelled at, some of us like to be talked to, and it just made it better to work with each other."

"He put the fight in us, and made us want to win," Matzek added.

"We could be down by a lot, because we were in some games, but we worked as hard as we could and played as if there was no difference in scores," senior Taylor Feuerhelm said. "We have a great team. We all get along, we all have fun. If we're having a bad game or a bad season, it doesn't show in practice."

When asked how he's able to instill confidence in his players but still keep them hungry to improve, Janke responded with "relationships."

Janke said that he and his assistant coaches don't "paint things flowery" with their players, but before they can be blunt about their team's play, they have to let their girls know that they care about them.

"We would like to think that we're teaching them much more than basketball," coach Janke said.

"We all say, over time the kids are going to realize that we care about them and we want what's best for them as individuals. And when people — I don't think it's just kids — know you care about them, then you can be honest with them."

Janke and his staff have been able to teach their players confidence and determination, but as far as positivity goes, Janke said, "To be honest with you, with the group of kids we have, [keeping the players positive] really hasn't been that difficult because they're awesome kids."

Dahl, Feuerhelm and Matzek all agreed that they're able to stay positive despite adversity because of the group of people — coaches and teammates — they get to work with.

"It helps with just the coaches and the teammates," Dahl said about staying positive throughout the season. "We started out really rough in the beginning of last season, and after December we picked it up, and then we were like, 'Wow, we can do this, we can win,' and it paid off and you could see it on the court."

"It's different for other sports, but everyone who is in basketball is just committed and wants to win and they're here for the right reasons," Matzek said. "Other sports I don't really see that."

After a year of building team chemistry, picking up four more wins than the previous season, and gaining more varsity experience, the Panthers are ready to take another large stride in the right direction.

"Our goal is to be competitive every night, because number one, we haven't been over time," Janke said. "As a coaching staff, I think our goal for the girls is to believe in themselves and to go out and compete all 36 minutes and that's one of the things we were able to do was compete. But now we want to be competitive in games."

Janke's players want to win just as much as he does, but whatever their season brings, they're going to continue to find the small joys in the game of basketball.

"I just want to enjoy every part. When we're winning, it feels so good because we've had it rough the past however many years, so it just feels good when you're on the court," Feuerhelm said. "Our bench goes crazy, our parents go crazy. We have a lot of support, so I'm excited for that."

Ellsworth's season kicks off on Tuesday, Nov. 21 when the team travels to Pepin High School to take on Alma/Pepin.