Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Coach finds passion on home court

By CLINTON DICK, Herald Staff Writer | 2/3/2014

WELLSVILLE — When Thatcher Decker graduated from Wellsville High School in 1988, all he wanted to do was get out of Wellsville, he said.

Now he’s in the middle of his third season as the head boys basketball coach at the school, 602 Walnut St., with a 9-3 team and couldn’t be more happy about it.

WELLSVILLE — When Thatcher Decker graduated from Wellsville High School in 1988, all he wanted to do was get out of Wellsville, he said.

Now he’s in the middle of his third season as the head boys basketball coach at the school, 602 Walnut St., with a 9-3 team and couldn’t be more happy about it.

“I teach seniors now and they say, ‘I can’t wait to get out of Wellsville,’ and I was the same way,” Decker said. “I was ready to go out and play college ball. As soon as I got out of [college], I couldn’t wait to come home.

“That is what I said is, ‘If I get this job I don’t ever want to go anywhere.’ If we have success, I’m not going to go to a bigger school. I’ve been approached to be an assistant coach in college, and I’m not interested in being a college coach. I love the kids, I love the community, I love having a first- and a fifth-grader, and I foresee them going to school here the whole time and being in my classroom and playing for me. I plan on being here until they pry me out of [the coach’s] box.”

Decker’s decision to be a high school coach and teacher didn’t come without a little influence from his parents, who both were coaches and teachers in his adolescent years. It was his father, Stephen Decker, who coached Decker at WHS.

“Both my parents were coaches, and you never want to do what your parents do out of high school,” Decker said. “I really enjoyed having my dad as a teacher and a coach in the school system. He coached me in football, debate and one year in basketball in high school.”

Stephen Decker was at WHS for 32 years and retired three years ago. The open position at the school was filled by his son.

Decker didn’t immediately come back to Wellsville upon finishing college, he said. In fact, teaching was not his original plan. Decker studied communications while playing basketball at Ottawa University.

“After playing in college I was kind of burned out, so I got away from it,” Decker said. “I had an internship at Channel 9. I actually had a broadcast communications degree from Ottawa University. I realized I didn’t enjoy that very much.”

After working at Sprint for 15 years, Decker got his teacher’s certificate and found his passion for basketball again, he said.

“When I had my first son and started coaching him when he turned 5 and 6 and started doing rec stuff, I realized I still loved the game and being around the kids as I got a little older,” Decker said.

Thanks to his family, Decker is now in his “dream job,” he said, and has his team fighting for the top spot in the Pioneer League. At 9-3, the squad boasts the best overall record in the league, but the schedule ahead isn’t light, Decker said. Wellsville plays just one 3A team in its remaining eight regular season games. They also play host to sub-state with a slew of tough opponents coming to fight including Council Grove (14-0), Humboldt (12-1), and Osage City (7-4).

“We don’t fear anyone,” Decker said. “We don’t think there is anyone who we can’t beat if we do the little things. These kids that are starting for me now have played for me for three years. They know the system and our expectations.”

Decker is no newcomer to high expectations. During his high school basketball career, Wellsville won the 3A state championship his junior year, was the runner-up his senior year and got third at the state tournament his sophomore year.

“I played for a legend, Kermit Deterding, all four years,” Decker said. “I grew up hanging around his practices since the time I was in second grade. He’d let me in drills and things like that.”

Though his team went just 9-14 in his first season, and last year lost on a 50-foot half court shot in sub-state to Central Heights, Decker makes sure his players understand that the community is behind them, he said. The team does many fundraisers to connect with the Wellsville community, Decker said.

“The people that follow and support [the team], those people think that this is a big deal, and the kids are starting to get that,” he said. “They are starting to get that the crowds are a little bit bigger this year. This town isn’t going to bail on us.”

And while high school basketball is an obsession, Decker knows what comes first.

“Like I told the kids and the parents when I first got here, I’m going to run this like a college program,” he said. “I do grade checks ... If they pop up on the ineligible list, they come to practice and do homework until their grades are back in order because that is the most important. As crazy as I am about high school athletics, I understand it is secondary to what you need to learn as you move on in life.”

That philosophy translates to his two sons, Maddox, 10, and Vaughn, 7, both of whom already are shooting the rock up and down the court. Maddox plays basketball year-round, and Vaughn is getting old enough to start playing in more competitive leagues, Decker said.

“I’ve got two gym rats who all they want to do is play basketball,” he said. “That is fine with me. That is my favorite place.”

Decker, who lives in Gardner with his wife, Kari, and sons, also gets to spend a lot of time with his family off the court on their daily drives to school. The family is considering a move to Wellsville this summer, he said.

As for his team, which is coming off of a third-place finish at the Baldwin City Tournament, Decker is confident the players will put up a fight in the final stretch of the season, he said.

“We lost a heartbreaker [in Baldwin City] to Augusta, who is ranked in 4A,” he said. “It is going to be a tough one to swallow for a while, but if we do the little things we can compete with anyone in the state.”

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