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Being Better

Being Better

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By Tomi Thompson
Photography by Janssen Photography

As the Brandon-Evansville girls basketball team wraps up practice, they head into a circle, and veteran Head Coach Dick Simpson passes off a calendar quote book to senior Elizabeth Vinson. Vinson clears her throat, and shares the quote of the day.

“Everyone’s allowed an occasional failure – except a skydiver of course,” Vinson reads.

Simpson shares these quotes after every practice, and has a different quote book for games. “We’re supposed to guess who the quote person is, when you’re a senior you get a lot better at it,” jokes senior Melissa Haseman.

The team thinks Coach Simpson shares the quotes as a stress reliever intended to inspire and build camaraderie. “It kind of gets your mind off the stress of the game,” Vinson says.

Inspiration from Coach Simpson doesn’t stop at the quote books. In his 43 years coaching basketball, he’s spent the majority of his career leading the Brandon-Evansville Chargers girls varsity team. Players past and present agree Simpson has earned their respect.
“He doesn’t yell or raise his voice,” says Heather Strese, a former Charger and current starter for the Minnesota State University Moorhead women’s basketball team. She says, “He coaches by knowing the girls respect him, and value what he has to say.”
“I think as the coach conducts him or herself, the team reflects how you coach,” Simpson says. “I figured if I’m getting upset and riled then kids are going to too. I think that it’s important for kids to see how to be sportsman, to get along with referees.”

Growing up in Graceville, MN, Simpson has spent most of his life coaching or playing small town basketball. He’s seen many different coaching styles, but his overall philosophy about coaching is simple.

“I coach how I wanted to be coached,” Simpson says. “I don’t necessarily have a system. You get somebody new or a different batch of kids almost every year. Some of these kids have been here a long time but I’ve got a different offense almost every year just to fit the personnel.”

Nestled in the heart of small town Minnesota, Brandon-Evansville is a member of the Little 8 Conference that includes Ashby, Rothsay, Battle Lake, Underwood, Hillcrest, and Parkers Prairie. Even though the conference is ‘little’ it boasts big competition.

“I’d say everyone in our conference is a rival,” Vinson says.

The girls say Brandon-Evansville’s strengths are in their depth and shooting game. “We have so many players that are good and capable of a role. We might have multiple people step up,” Haseman says.

The team’s strength begins with the emphasis placed on fundamentals and practice. “I like practice better than games,” Simpson says. ”There’s no expectation as far as somebody having to play. It’s just the kids, so you can do different things and concentrate on one specific aspect.”

The current seniors have a long history playing together. “We’ve been playing together since we were in fourth grade. We all know each other’s strengths and how we play. We play well together,” Vinson says.

Vinson notes that programs in Brandon-Evansville like Junior Chargers and Gym Rats get the girls in the gym playing basketball as early as third grade. “We’re building teammates young. We’re building good team relationships from the very beginning,” she adds.

Simpson’s passion for practice translates to his players. “Without him I probably would have not woken up and had encouragement to go to morning basketball,” Senior Katie Kokett says. Kokett credits Coach Simpson for providing the spark that led her to the weight room, and a desire to improve and grow in all of her sports.

Senior Toni Wright says Simpson doesn’t have his players stop with missed shots. “He always tells you to have confidence and keep shooting. Even if you don’t make the baskets – he tells you to keep shooting,” she noted.

“I think the foundation of our program is built on character,” Haseman says.

The character of the team has been tested this season. Starting out 7-0 and falling into a mid-season slump, the girls have had to dig deep and fight back in tough games.

Games haven’t necessarily been the biggest challenges the girls have faced this season.

Recently, junior shooting guard Carrigan Okerlund was sidelined with a broken wrist. Another teammate lost her mother to a long battle with cancer. Coach Simpson says that his team took it upon themselves to attend their teammate’s mother’s funeral as a team. “We’ve been blessed with quality character girls,” Simpson says.

Simpson says throughout time, the players are what make him really enjoy his job as a coach.
“Over the years we have had quality kids who make my job easier. You win with people.”

Simpson and Heather Strese also say that long time assistant coach Jim Rolf was a big contributor to the program.
“Jim Rolf and Mr. S are two really close friends that love the game of basketball,” Strese says.

For the majority of Simpson’s career, he had Rolf by his side. Strese and her older sister Megan, both collegiate athletes at MSUM, were both moved up to the Varsity team at a young age. Strese says that Rolf was good at preparing girls for a higher level of play.

“Mr. Rolf used to say, ‘I would get the girls ready and then Mr. S would take them from me,’” Strese recalls.

Even after he retired from coaching, Rolf is still very involved in the sport. Even though he currently lives in Moorhead, Rolf still travels to Brandon-Evansville away games to do the book and keep up with the team.

In her career at MSUM, Strese says that Rolf continues to keep tabs on and support her as a former Charger. “He also attends a majority of my games. I think last year he came to more home games than my parents did,” Strese says smiling. “I remember seeing him walk in when he came to the first game and I was excited for him to see me play. Mr. S and (Rolf) are two truly amazing coaches.”

The girls say that Simpson has a special gift for combining lessons of basketball and lessons of life. “I’d rather have the players develop some mental toughness and be able to handle adversity and that sort of stuff. Basketball is a medium to do that,” Simpson says.

Kokett says playing for Simpson helped her gain confidence in her abilities and perseverance. “Always go after something you want – it might be hard, but keep pushing, you’ll always make it.”

Wright added that Simpson’s coaching style doesn’t allow players to doubt themselves. “He believes in you and knows you can do it, and he wants you to believe that you can do it too.”

Haseman says when she was younger, she missed some summer basketball practices for a mission trip. She says Simpson was quick to point out there are some bigger things in life, like going out to help other people. “He just has a kind heart.
It kind of makes all of us want to be better people and kinder and focus on the big things in life; focusing on more than just yourself.”

“Anybody can teach them how to shoot layups and shoot and all that kind of stuff but there’s more to it than just the physical part. It’s the relationships that you build and teaching them how to win with class, and lose with class, and to be a sportsman,” Simpson says.

“It’s so nice to see that he sees our potential as a player, and as a person,” Haseman notes.

This year, Vinson and Haseman have had the opportunity to see a team from the coaching perspective. Haseman coaches 5th grade, and Vinson coaches a 6th grade team.

“When I coach my girls, I try to coach like Mr. S coaches us,” Vinson says. “He is a big reason I started coaching. I have always thought that Mr. S was good guy and I want to be like that for the girls I’m coaching.”

Their final season came to a close more quickly than the two seniors expected. “I remember seniors telling me – don’t take it for granted, it’s going to be over before you know it, so it’s kind of weird to see it come to a close. It’s weird to know it’s not you anymore,” Haseman says.

Kockett enjoys watching her teammates grow into new positions as her class moves on. “It’s fun seeing other kids come up and step up.”
Looking into the future, Okerlund hopes to make a strong comeback and grow with her team and upon the fundamentals that have been instilled by Simpson. “I’m really excited to play with all of the juniors as seniors. Another year with
Mr. S just makes you a better person. I think that coming back from an injury will be easy, it’s just an injury to me, she adds.

Through team and personal successes, strong health and injuries, and even the occasional failures, the girls believe Coach Simpson and their time as Brandon-Evansville Chargers gave them skills they’ll be able to use for a lifetime.

“He really stresses to us not to just be good players or teammates, but to be good people and I think that’s what each of us is going to take out of it,” Haseman notes. “Maybe we each take a different aspect of character or a different aspect of Mr. Simpson and what we saw in him, but every person that has come into this program has come out a better person.”