The locker room at Hillcrest was quiet before Saturday’s game.
The lights were turned out. Some quiet music played. And the Raven basketball players took a few minutes to relax …
The locker room at Hillcrest was quiet before Saturday’s game.
The lights were turned out. Some quiet music played. And the Raven basketball players took a few minutes to relax in the dark and think about the task at hand. After a quick devotional, it was time to hit the court.
Little about the game day experience has changed for the hundreds of players, coaches, and managers who have passed through that locker room over the past 30-plus seasons.
Randy Rempel was a sophomore at IMS when head coach Dwight Gingerich won his 100th game in 1990.
“Game days were the best,” Rempel recalled. “We had a shootaround after school when we’d go over special plays, inbound plays, and what the other team’s tendencies would be. Then we went to someone’s house for a pre-game meal, always pasta of some sort.”
At halftime of the girls game, the IMS boys went to the locker room to get dressed, stretch, and get focused.
“We had a short devotion, led by a player, coach, or someone brought in to talk,” Rempel said. “In my opinion, these are some of the best team-bonding times. After a few final words from Dwight on the scouting report, it was game time.”
Rempel’s son Jace is now a junior at Hillcrest, experiencing those same traditions, running a lot of the same drills in practice and the same plays during games.
There have been over 900 game days for Gingerich as the head boys basketball coach at Hillcrest Academy, known as Iowa Mennonite School until 2019.
Ravens are always dressed up for game day. “Look good, feel good, play good,” Dwight has told players for years. Even during practice they have to look good. The socks are white. Undershirts are black, white or gray, and jerseys are tucked in.
The Ravens do look good on the court, and not just because of the matching socks. Gingerich’s attention to detail has his teams well-prepared for the opening tip.
On Saturday, the Hillcrest Ravens held Rivermont Collegiate to four points in the first quarter. They caused problems with a full-court press and forced turnovers. They won the game 63-26 — the program’s 700th win with Gingerich as coach.
While winning the games takes execution on game day, you could also say those 700 wins were earned on the practice court and in the offseason.
“He has always been excellent at teaching his players the fundamentals of the game,” said Caleb Gingerich, who played for his dad from 2015-19.
“I couldn't tell you how many times we ran the 4-on-4 shell drill in practice. It seemed like we came back to it every other day. As tiring as it could be for us, running the shell drill practice after practice solidified our team defense.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Lone Tree coach Tom Squiers. His Lions have faced off against Gingerich many times over the past 35 seasons, including some particularly memorable games during the 2006-07 season, in which both teams reached the final four.
“They are always so good fundamentally,” Squiers said. “He's run the same system and his kids have always bought into that system. You know, there are years where you thought ‘man, you know Hillcrest/IMS might be a little down this year…’ They'll still win 15, 17, games because those kids, they're just so good defensively.”
Eli Gingerich, a two-time conference player of the year, played for his father from 2012-2016. He explained that for many who pass through the program, an education in the fundamentals begins long before high school.
“The first thing taught to young players at basketball camp, prior to picking up a basketball even, are things like jump stops, and then jump stops with a pivot,” he said. “Or a defensive stance and defensive slides, with your lead foot pointing in the direction you're sliding. Once you leave the camp, you have those little things ingrained into your mind.
“When you get to the high school level it was tediously repping shell drill and cutters offense. Mastering the most basic forms of the game allowed you to be more comfortable while diving into the complexities of it. He never threw too much at you while simultaneously asking for your best.”
The approach has produced results. Under Gingerich, the program has collected 700 wins and played in 12 state tournaments. Iowa Mennonite played in the state championship game five times and won it all in 1992.
Jason Hershberger, the program’s all-time leading scorer, was the all-tournament team captain in 1991 and 92. He remembers that Gingerich always had IMS well prepared for each matchup.
“Dwight was the most fundamental coach I have ever played for,” he said.”He always develops kids to their full potential and prepares the team for every scenario. We went into every single tournament game knowing all tendencies of the other team, which made our confidence skyrocket.”
IMS won 28 straight games on the way to the state championship game in 2004-05. Torey Miller was a senior on the state runner-up squad.
“Coach Dwight always paid attention to details,” Miller said. “He taught me to prepare well, play your hardest no matter what obstacles you face and he would say metaphorically, ‘let the chips fall where they may.’ ”
It’s fitting that Iowa Mennonite played its first season of basketball in 1972-73, while Gingerich was a freshman at the school.
At first, he was not allowed to play because the basketball practices would keep him from doing his daily chores. But he wouldn’t give up the dream. He typed a letter to his father. He agreed to his siblings’ chores on the weekend. And he was allowed to play.
The program went 76-26 during the ‘70s, but suffered its first losing season in 1979-80 and was just 2-15 the next year before Gingerich was hired. The team’s record improved in each of the next seven seasons, resulting in its first state tournament appearance in 1988. The program has experienced just one losing season since 1984.
Harlan’s Mitch Osborn and Easton Valley’s Dan Beck each hit the 700-win mark in 2020, making Gingerich the sixth coach to join the elite club. Of the six, only Osborn has been to more state tournaments and has a higher winning percentage than Gingerich, who has a record of 700-210 after Saturday.
Only Gingerich has all 700 victories with one school.
“I always felt like, as long as there are guys that are willing to engage and willing to care enough to work hard to buy in, I want to keep doing it,” Gingerich said. “I feel like we've been blessed to have those kids who come from families who value this.
“I appreciate the support of parents who see value in what we're doing beyond the winning and the losing. To me, winning is kind of a byproduct of a lot of other things, but obviously success has a chance to breed success that way too. I feel blessed to be a part of this community.”
Each of his 700 wins was earned by a team, working together. Gingerich stresses at the beginning of every season that individual goals might need to be sacrificed for the good of the team. And the strongest unit on the court might not always include the five best individuals
The basketball court was a place to encourage each other, Caleb Gingerich explained. He described one of the teams he played on developing its culture while taking charges in practice.
“After we each hit the floor one-by-one, my dad would have us hype each other up, clapping and rushing over to pick up our teammate from the floor,” he said.
“I think the most valuable insight I picked up from playing under him was the inherent strength existent in a team with a strong sense of community. I would describe each of the four teams I played on as selfless. No one was concerned with scoring the most points or basking in the spotlight.”
Team success was the only success that mattered.
“Dwight was, and always has been, a team-first guy,” Rempel said. “Over the years, I know there have been talented guys sitting on the bench so the ‘glue’ guy could play. The guy who worked his tail off, talked on (defense), or did whatever necessary to get the best out of the team.
Selfless play is one of the things that brings Gingerich the most satisfaction as a coach.
“What has been so fun is to see guys put the team ahead of themselves,” he said. “The willingness to make the extra pass, to go for a loose ball, because that’s what the team needs. Everything we are about points to it. It’s a thing of beauty to have a talented player do all those things too.”
After Saturday’s win, Gingerich was congratulated by family and former players.
"It's been a journey and I’m just blessed to have this community that supports me,” said Gingerich, who also received calls and messages from coaches that his teams have faced many times over the years.
“You develop friendships and respect people who pour themselves into it,” Gingerich said. “You compete hard. But when it's all over, the relationships are there — with players, coaches. And that's what makes this all meaningful.”
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