WACO's Kissell makes adjustments in successful season

GTNS photo by Doug Brenneman

Paul Kissell watches WACO play Pekin in a postseason win.
GTNS photo by Doug Brenneman Paul Kissell watches WACO play Pekin in a postseason win.

A coach has to constantly make adjustments. The good coaches make the correct ones. There are adjustments to make off of adjustments and because of adjustments.

WACO’s Paul Kissell made all the right moves this season in taking the Warriors to a 17-5 record and within an overtime loss of the state tournament. Those results contributed to him being named Southeast Iowa Super Conference South Division Coach of the Year and All-GTNS Coach of the Year.

“Being coach of the year, I think, was more of a team award showing what the kids could do,” Kissell said.

A lot of success in basketball is earned with work in the offseason.

WACO had gone undefeated in a summer camp at North Iowa Area Community College and the Warriors thought they had a winning formula. Injuries changed that formula.

In a preseason game against Winnfield-Mt. Union, Matt Leichty hit four threes and Braden Hammond hit seven threes. “I realized the style we had played in the summer would have to be different for success,” Kissell said.

Nik Coble, Wyatt Harbison and Colton Horak were among the wounded. Gabe Reichenbach’s knee bothered him during the season.

“Your whole approach changes and how you want to do things,” Kissell said. “I would call Harbison our gravy player because if he was able to come back and play it would’ve been gravy for us. It would’ve helped out a lot because he was a really good athlete.”

Injuries were a constant in Kissell’s time at the helm, which started when Bob Hilmer left after the 2015 season.

“This is the hand I’m dealt and what can I do to put the best product on the floor,” Kissell said. “The kids worked hard and that helps.”

The Warriors were 5-19 in Kissell’s first year when the returning leading scorer transferred, 4-19 the next when returning leading scorer suffered career ending concussion in football and 10-12 last season when leading scorer suffered ACL injury at football camp.

“We have struggled with the injuries, so we never really got to show but our kid we’re capable of,” Kissell said. “This year we still had a key injury with Wyatt but it was at the beginning of the year. We had enough juniors and seniors to fill the roles and display what our kids could do.”

As the program grew under Kissell’s leadership, so did the talent pool.

“It is important to have those juniors and seniors instead of going against freshman,” Kissell said. “There’s a difference in mentality, maturity, ability and agility. We were blessed this year with a lot of juniors and seniors that had been in the program for four years.”

Those players that don’t get the recognition or playing time are crucial to a team’s success.They provide the sharpener for the tool of the starters. Especially at tournament time when they run the opposing teams’ offense and defense.

“This year when some of our starters weren’t able to play and games for various reasons our seven, eight and nine became our five, six and seven,” Kissell said. “It’s important that they are able to know what’s going on. They contribute just as much is any other player. It doesn’t matter if you are one or 18, our expectations are the same.”

Those expectations rose as the Warriors’ season unfolded. A 4-1 start was great but then came aloss to Danville.

“There are steps forward and there are always steps back,” Kissell said. “The first time we played Danville, it opened our eyes that we can’t just show up and play. That was an ‘aha’ moment for the kids because they realized that even if they think they are better, they have to step up and do it.”

The team was 8-2 when it lost at New London, but that was followed by an overtime home win against Notre Dame.

“This is Year 3 for us in the South and there are those teams who are just more talented,” Kissell said. “Beating Notre Dame and the athletes they have, it was a stepping point for the kids to know they can be competitive. A coach can tell the kids something and they nod and say, ‘yeah Coach, we got it.’ Until you actually do it, it is a hurdle to get past.”

They continued hurdling with a 90-79 home win over Danville that made their record 13-4. It came five days after losing at Notre Dame, which was the last regular-season loss.

One week later the postseason began with a 48-42 win over Lone Tree, which came with a starter missing.

A coach can do many things and make many adjustments. “It all comes down to what the kids can do. They have to execute,” Kissell said.

A last-second shot by Coble gave the Warriors a 53-50 win over Pekin, the North Division champions.

“Somebody asked me to explain the last two minutes of the Pekin game and I couldn’t,” Kissell said. “It was all the kids.”

It was also the fact that practice time was spent going over and over game situations.

“If you don’t practice it, you can’t try it in a game,” Kissell said. “A big impetus for us this year was those end of quarter moments and knowing what to do.”

A good coach plans ahead for game adjustments.

WACO trailed 24-14 at halftime against New London in the district final, but rallied with a 17-4 advantage in the fourth quarter to win, 41-37.

“New London was a team we had never beat,” Kissell said. “So that was big for the season and for our future. Beating New London was like getting the monkey off of our back. Moving forward the goal is to be competitive with them every year.”

The overtime loss to Alburnett showed how good WACO was when Alburnett finished second in Class 1A at the state tournament.

T”here is a ‘it could’ve been us’ attitude, but at the same time, we got beat by a quality team so that makes me feel a little bit better,” Kissell said. “But the kids were kind of the other way, thinking more like ‘could have, should have.’”

Kissell’s coaching journey started at the high school he graduated from, Louisa-Muscatine, where he had a 32-51 record in five years. His first job out of college was at New London. He then became an administrator and was a principal at Orient-Macksburg.

“We had child number three and decided I was spending too much time at school,” Kissell said. “Teaching was a better option for spending time with my family.”

He was a football assistant and junior high coach for nine years at WACO.

“When Bob Hilmer left, there was an opening, so I thought that was the time to get back into it,” Kissell said. “It has worked out. It has been fun. It is definitely challenging but very rewarding especially this year.”

“My assistants were a huge help this year,” Kissell said of Chayse Roth, Jeff McGohan and Jay Coble. “The community made such an impact this year. They all turned out for our games. It was great The way they supported us.”

Like any good coach, defense is a priority.

“Our defense made a difference, our help side defense was really effective,” Kissell said. “When we went to a zone sometimes we would specify a player and bother him enough that I think we would get in his head. We would change defenses a lot every time down the floor on some teams. I think pointing out to the kids in practice what defenses work and how they worked in games made a difference in how well they executed in the next game. Showing them what they’re doing right and pointing it out to them where they can see it then they can go do it again, that’s when you get the muscle memory and the mental memory.”

A good coach knows what his team needs.

“We were trying to run earlier in the season but then our bench got shorter and we started to slow things down and make the game shorter,” Kissell said. “Fouls became a major issue because our bench was thinner.”

That was never more evident than in the substate game. “All year we had to adjust. You have to just do what the players can do and put them in a position to succeed.”

Words of a wise coach.