Tweaked Cats toil through transition

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
Jessica Mehringer has coached for 16 seasons at the college level and spent multiple seasons as a volunteer assistant with Jasper’s girls basketball program. In her first year as the Wildcats’ coach, the transition has been rewarding and challenging.

BY JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

JASPER — Sometimes taking a new job is like breaking in new shoes: It may take a while for the fit to get just right.

For Jessica Mehringer, this “shoe” may not necessarily be new, but maybe requires some of the same stretching and adjusting that comes with wearing a new pair.

This season is Mehringer’s first as the coach of the Jasper girls basketball tea, but this is far from her first time occupying the role as the leader and decision-maker for a basketball program. She has 16 years of coaching experience as a head coach at Oakland City University and Olney (Ill.) Central College.

After eight-year stints at both schools, Mehringer took inventory of her life and priorities before finally deciding to walk away from coaching at the collegiate level. The number one factor in her decision: family.

“My family was here (in Jasper) and it was a lot of time away,” said Mehringer, who grew up in southern Illinois but has lived in Jasper for years. “I’m missing a lot of my kids’ events.”

However Mehringer had crossed paths with Ryan Erny, who was coaching at Jasper during Mehringer’s period of transition as she left OCU and took a job teacher at Jasper High School. Their sons played together in youth sports leagues around the area, and Mehringer, still feeling a bit of the coaching itch, approached Erny about a volunteer opportunity.

“I talked to him about being a volunteer, and would he allow me the opportunity to do that. And he did,” she said. “I really liked that role because it gave me the freedom I needed to be able to do things with my kids (Libby and Tysen), and I was still able to be part of a basketball team.”

Mehringer enjoyed the change of pace from coaching collegiate athletes to high school students, mainly because of the opportunity to nurture the girls’ talents and love for the game from a younger age, as she is able to connect with elementary and middle school-aged kids.

After three years as an assistant, Mehringer found herself back in the head coach’s chair when Erny decided to step down from the position at Jasper to focus on his new job as principal at Fifth Street School. Mehringer said the transition back was not difficult.

“I’ve done it. I have ideas about how you want to run your program and the things you want to do,” she said. “But Ryan and I shared a lot of the same philosophies. That’s why we got along so well.”

The similarities between the coaches can be found in the foundational principles: They taught their players to conduct themselves at a high level on and off the court, they harped on the value of teamwork, and they used the game to teach players about how to approach life and its challenges beyond the court.

“We’re both big-picture people,” said Mehringer. “Sometimes people that aren’t big-picture people have a hard time understanding why some things aren’t as important to us as they might be to them.”

But that does not mean Mehringer doesn’t care about winning games or the fundamental X’s and O’s  on the court. To that end, she has adopted a slightly different approach than her predecessor: Rather than focus solely on memorizing and running set plays, Mehringer wants to transition the girls into a more free, open style of playing the game.

“I want them to get to a point where they can read each other and not have all of their movements orchestrated every offensive possession,” she said. “What we’re doing offensively is way different than what they’re used to. Anytime you’re changing what people are used to, you’re going to have some hiccups.”

Those offensive system changes combined with the youth of the team have made this early portion of the Wildcats’ season a bit rough, as they are still in search of their first win. It also does not help that the front end of their schedule has been so loaded. Jasper’s first four opponents have a combined winning percentage of .833 (20-4) so far this season, the best opponents’ winning percentage of any team in the state.

But Mehringer doesn’t want to use Jasper’s schedule or the fact that they lost six seniors from last year’s team as an excuse. She instead seeks to use this time as a teaching opportunity for her girls to develop their faith and confidence in one another.

“The big things that we’re learning are to trust the coaches and each other,” she said. “I think that’s the big word that we’ve probably have talked about the most.”

And even though the early season part of the season has been tough sledding for the team, the players seem to be buying into the process.

“I think it benefits our type of play better,” said sophomore guard Brooke Nottingham. “We’re so used to memorizing set plays, and now it’s like, ‘Just go out there and play basketball.’ I think that just works better for our talents.”

“I think that (it) works a lot better for our team,” added sophomore Reagan Egbert. “Because (with) set plays, other teams will catch on and it becomes predictable. With this, they don’t know what’s coming, and we can switch it up and adjust to the defense.”

The process will take some time and the games will keep on coming, but Mehringer is optimistic about progress. She says the players are enjoying their new basketball liberty, but there are moments where they are still figuring out how to use their freedom. Mehringer is challenging them to put together a complete 32 minutes and is encouraged by their hustle and accountability in practice.

The season is still young and there’s a lot of ground that needs to be covered. But Mehringer says the support around her from the team and the community have helped make this transition as smooth as can be, despite some bumps in the road.

“I have great support here in my colleagues, assistant coaches and family,” she said. “People understand where we’re starting at right now. We have fans that are on our side, that are here and cheering for us. We have great support.”




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