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Former Hays High players team to memorialize coach

9/29/2012

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

As a coach, Gerald Mitchell wasn't a yeller or a pacer. He did most of his coaching from his seat on the bench alongside his team.

A whole bunch of his former basketball players want folks to remember their coach by taking a seat on a park bench with his name on it.

Mitchell, longtime teacher and coach at HHS, died at the age of 67 in June after nearly a five-month bout with cancer.

Players from his 14 years of coaching girls' basketball at Hays High School gathered Friday at the 2012 HHS homecoming festivities to dedicate a bench in his honor.

The maroon metal bench will sit near a brick walkway area just outside the Hays High gym where the Indians' home games are played. The back of the bench features a large basketball that reads "In Memory of Coach Gerald Mitchell, 1947-2012," with markers on either side depicting who donated the bench, and his record and years of coaching. He was 301-250 at four different schools, including a 189-100 mark for Hays High girls' basketball.

"He was an amazing man that gave his time so unselfishly," Laura Hertel of the HHS alumni association told those attending a pep assembly in Gym A Friday afternoon. "His influence inspired us to be better students, better athletes and better people."

Mitchell's wife, Kathy, attended the ceremony along with the couple's two sons and their wives and the Mitchells' granddaughter, 17-month-old Olive, whose dad Philip was a 1999 graduate of Hays High and now lives in Lawrence.

Oldest son David Mitchell (1996) made the trip from the Chicago area for the memorial presentation and for his 20-year class reunion.

Players remain close

A large group of former players attended Mitchell's funeral on July 3 in Hays. Some of those were back this weekend, along with others who weren't able to make it back for the dedication. In all, more than a dozen players were home for the memorial weekend, ranging from his first HHS team in 1978-79 to one of his last Indian teams in 1990-91.

"It was great to see some of the ones I hadn't seen for a long time," Kathy Mitchell said. "But a lot of them have kept in touch with us over the years."

Mitchell was small in stature; at 5-feet, 7-inches tall, he was shorter than a lot of his players. But it's obvious he takes up a big space in their hearts.

Brenda (Bruggeman) Cox -- a 6-foot-2 player from the 1986-87 Indian team that placed third at state and now the mother of four daughters, the oldest a 6-foot-4 freshman in high school -- made the trip all the way from Dallas. And there were four players from Mitchell's very first team at Hays High.

"You can see how when all of us get together, we just pick up where we left off years ago," said Terrie (Sargent) Harms, one of those players from the 1978-79 team who now lives in Oklahoma.

"Regardless of the number of points on the scoreboard at the end of the game or the number of wins and losses at the end of the season," Hertel told the homecoming audience, "we all knew how deeply Coach Mitchell cared for us as people."

Some of Mitchell's biggest thrills were winning three of the first four Hays City Shoot-Outs, a preseason tournament he helped start, and bringing home the third-place trophy from the Class 5A State Championships in 1987.

Family first

Even those times couldn't compare, though, to a phone call he received on one particular spring day in 2011 while he was attending horse races in Omaha, Neb.

It was his wife in Hays on the other end, telling him their son's wife, Lauren, was in labor with their first grandchild. Mitchell met Kathy in Wilson, and they made it to Lawrence in time for the birth of Olive May Mitchell.

It didn't take Mitchell long to realize that being a grandpa was even better than coaching girls' basketball.

"Coach Mitchell loved coaching and teaching, loved his students and athletes," said Hertel, a member of the 1984-85 team that finished with his best record (19-3). "But we all knew he loved his family above all other."

"He was definitely a proud grandpa," Olive's dad said. "He had her picture on his phone and showed everyone."

"If you were around him, you got to see pictures of Olive," Mitchell's wife said in agreement.

Mitchell's players made sure that no one forgets their favorite coach, either.

Never to be forgotten

After Mitchell's death, his basketball players brainstormed for a way to keep their coach's memory at the gym where he spent so many hours.

Tanya Jantz, who played under Mitchell from 1981-85 and is now a chiropractor in Cimarron, came up with the idea of the park bench.

The players also collected enough money to buy a large sign to place at the HHS track -- Mitchell coached track and sent an Indian high jumper to state 17 straight years -- and to donate $650 to the HHS girls' basketball program in his name.

"He would be thrilled and overwhelmed and touched," Kathy Mitchell said.

And Coach Mitchell no doubt would have been pleased with the first person to take a seat on his bench -- Olive.