CHAMPAIGN — Chris Mennig was ready to be a head coach. More than ready.
He grew up in the game of basketball. He studied the game, had coached at various universities and wanted to venture out on his own.
Nothing against Theresa Grentz. Nothing against the University of Illinois, but Mennig wanted to be the person in charge. He wanted a team to call his own.
He had a spring 2005 interview at Saint Louis University and was in touch with Loyola University about its vacancy. Though SLU was promising, he didn’t get an offer. He wasn’t the first choice but the first runner-up.
Grentz, then the Illini women’s head coach, understood Mennig’s frustrations. She recognized that her capable staffer was a head coach-in-waiting and wanted to assist the assistant.
So, she went to church.
This isn’t a story about praying for an opportunity for her aide. It’s a story about being in the right place at the right time.
That place was St. Matthew Catholic Church, in Champaign.
After a Sunday morning service, Grentz spoke with Tim Millage, then the principal at St. Thomas More. Millage wondered if she knew anyone who might make a good candidate to be the Sabers’ girls’ basketball head coach.
The STM coach at the time, Billy Dreher, was planning to relocate to Louisiana and was hoping to spend his final season in a co-coach situation, breaking in the newcomer, showing him or her the ropes, introducing the person to the athletes and the places the team would play.
“She came into my office on Monday and said, ‘This is a sign it’s meant to be,’ ” Mennig said.
This time, there were no deal-breakers.
“I took a chance,” Mennig said, “and stepped away from the college game.”
It was eight years ago that Mennig took over the St. Thomas More girls’ program, the one that is currently ranked No. 1 among all of the state’s Class 2A high school teams entering Monday’s Clifton Central Sectional.
Having a ball
The 2005-06 school year was also when Mennig became totally immersed with basketball. It is his focus when he wakes up, and it is on his mind as his day draws to a close. It is his passion and his pursuit during each waking moment in between.
Leaving his paid position at the University of Illinois, Mennig needed a source of income besides what he’d earn from St. Thomas More.
He hooked up with Mike Flynn, who in 1981 started organizing and running girls’ camps and showcase events for Blue Star Basketball.
Flynn also serves as the top talent scout who rates high school players nationally. Another of his entities, U.S. Junior Nationals, is sponsored by Nike and runs some of the country’s top travel-team tournaments.
Some of those highly touted players, such as Danyel Crutcher (ranked 98th) and Jenna Smith (ranked 69th), Mennig had helped recruit to Illinois.
A decade ago there were fewer than 10 USJN girls’ events throughout the country. Now, with Mennig serving as an event operator and national evaluator, the landscape has changed.
“This year we’re shooting for over 35 events,” Mennig said.
One will be an 11-year-old event held at the UI and Parkland College in late May.
Mennig, who is paid by Flynn event by event, has duties that include arranging facilities for the plethora of games (some involving 300 teams), hiring staff and officials, scheduling, marketing and assisting with hotel arrangements.
The building process
January and February are slower times for Mennig with Blue Star. His email queries might be 60 to 80 a day. That total will grow to about 200 by March when the club circuit gets rolling.
January and February are the peak times, however, for a high school girls’ basketball coach. Once the IHSA state series starts, the next loss for all teams will be the final one until at least November.
For St. Thomas More, its ascension to a position of prominence in the state didn’t occur with the coach doing anything differently than he’s done in the past.
“The fact that we’re now going to the next tier is a credit to the athletes here,” Mennig said. “We have scholarship athletes. Before, we had good athletes who had strengths in other areas but loved basketball enough to play.”
This season’s starting lineup features three athletes that Mennig believes will receive Division I offers — junior Randa Harshbarger, sophomore Lexi Wallen and freshman Tori McCoy — along with two others — seniors Jade Brinkoetter and Erica Wallen — who are drawing interest from Division III or NAIA universities.
McCoy has a national ranking from Blue Star as one of the top 20 players in the Class of 2016.
With the nucleus for success in place at St. Thomas More, Mennig took a leave of absence last year to serve as a replacement coach for one season at Arizona State for a coach who took a personal leave. He was comfortable leaving temporarily because he knew nothing would change within the STM program.
The Sabers would recognize they could function effectively whether he was there in person or in spirit.
“It was ultimately up to us to push each other to achieve our goals,” Erica Wallen said.
Brinkoetter took a while to be convinced.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t trust (interim coach Jason) Schreder and the rest of my coaches to lead us, but I knew that we would have a promising team, and I was worried that a change in coaching would throw us off and prevent us from being the best that we could be,” Brinkoetter said.
When the season ended, the Sabers had set their school record for single-season wins, with 27.
“(Mennig) continuously reminded us that it wasn’t him playing in the games, it was us,” Brinkoetter said. “He would try to reassure us that we would be working on the same skills at practice and using the same plays, just without him there physically.
“I must admit, I was pretty upset that he was leaving and didn’t want to listen to him at the time. But, as usual, he was right.”
Mennig’s confidence eventually was transferred to his players.
“Coach Mennig is very confident and knowledgeable about the game of basketball,” Erica Wallen said. “Therefore, he has made us feel confident in ourselves in the way we execute the game.”
The target team
As the 2011-12 season progressed, Brinkoetter became a true believer.
“By the middle of that season I started buying into what he had said,” Brinkoetter said. “I was seeing how much raw talent we had, and I had come to the realization that, although Coach Mennig is an amazing coach, it is us — the team — that is out there on the court.
“Seeing how well we were able to adjust to Coach Mennig’s absence and how far we were able to make it boosted our confidence and opened our eyes to the possibilities for the next season.”
That season is this one.
Mennig said from the outset this could be a special team, and his players knew from experience he wasn’t building false hope.
“Something that shocked me most was how straightforward and honest he was with all of us,” Brinkoetter said. “He is not one to sugarcoat things. He calls it like he sees it. So, if you receive a compliment from him then you know it’s the truth and that you are doing something right.”
The No. 1 state ranking — the proverbial target now affixed to the back of the Sabers — means something but perhaps not what all would expect.
“It inspires me to work hard so that we can prove to people that the ranking is not just a fluke,” Brinkoetter said. “It drives us to want to make that number into a reality.”
A situation many might consider stressful — dealing with teenage girls who are being told by the pollsters how great they are collectively — is not difficult for Mennig. His background has seen to that.
He acknowledges that he was once caught up in the aura of being a big-time college basketball assistant.
“I was a cocky punk as a college coach,” he said. “When you get in that world, in that hamster wheel, you don’t see it. You have blinders on.”
Not until he stepped aside was he able to find a more fulfilling and satisfying life.
“St. Thomas More was the best thing for me to get back to who I am personally,” Mennig said. “To laugh more than I yell. To make memories for them, not for me. I don’t want to be remembered as the tyrant who put them on the end line (to run) because they missed a left-handed layup.”
Though his life revolves around basketball, Mennig finds himself wearing multiple hats as a coach.
“I’m more of a mad chemist than a basketball coach,” he said with a smile, “keeping the peace and making sure everyone is truly a part of our team goal.”
An individual focus
Mennig can be a demanding coach, but he is one who doesn’t handle each player identically.
“We do individual meetings to see what they want out of high school basketball and make sure we walk away on the same page,” Mennig said. “I can coach each one differently. I won’t be as hard on Hadley (Murray) as on Randa, who wants to play at the next level.
“These meetings help teach them how to communicate to their peers and learn skills beyond basketball such as the ability to talk to their bosses someday.”
Harshbarger is OK if she gets singled out or criticized. She takes it as a part of her developmental process.
“Coach Mennig is very basketball savvy,” she said. “He knows basketball and is very confident in his coaching abilities. He is extremely competitive and is willing to ‘be that bad guy,’ by working us hard, to get us where we need to be.”
It’s something Lexi Wallen picked up on this year, her first under Mennig’s tutelage.
“Coach Mennig, he has taught me things about the game I didn’t know existed,” she said. “He has helped me learn new skills and strengthen the little things that many coaches would not bother to pay attention to.”
Lexi Wallen accepts — and appreciates — the coach’s style.
“Coach Mennig is the type of coach that makes sure he does his best to get the most out of each person as an individual and as a player,” she said. “He is very good at learning what motivates us as a team and each player individually to push us to work our hardest.
“Whether it is about basketball or just life lessons, Coach Mennig is always willing to share his knowledge with us, which sets him apart not just as a coach but someone who truly cares about his team as people.”
Who has the edge?
The critics — and all coaches have them whether they’ve won every game, lost every game or are somewhere in between — point to the advantage private schools such as St. Thomas More have in terms of attracting players from various communities throughout the area. The Sabers’ roster, for example, includes athletes from Philo and Monticello, as well as Champaign-Urbana.
While the boundaries are indeed greater, Mennig is insistent that the advantage goes to coaches from the town teams.
“The public schools can go to the third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade level and develop those kids to the system they want at any point in time,” Mennig said. “I’d love to have a freshman come in that I don’t have to teach how to pass left-handed every year. I’d love to do more advanced things.”
He has gotten the job done. His 28-2 team broke the single-season school record for wins in the regional finals Thursday at Unity.
Mennig can’t help but look ahead, though his thoughts aren’t just on the potential of his 2013-14 team.
As implausible as it seems, he has larger goals than the one his Sabers face in the final three weeks of this season.
He next wants to tackle the caliber of play for area girls’ programs.
“If we all become more competitive, we all become better,” Mennig said. “I want everyone to learn and grow.”
Before the 2013-14 season starts, Mennig plans to conduct two free basketball forums. He has Champaign Central on board as the site for one. He hasn’t selected the other location but is adamant that it be held in a public school.
“I don’t want there to be a perception of recruiting,” he said, “and I don’t want this to be a typical clinic where I’m the only one talking.”
He’s hoping to reach coaches of grade school teams, parks and rec teams, travel teams, middle school teams and other high school teams.
“In my position (as a member of various national committees, such as the McDonald’s All-American selection team), I feel I have to be an advocate for the sport,” he said. “I’d love to see this area get to where we have 10-point games against all these teams, and we’re sweating each night.”
One point of emphasis will be adaptability among coaches.
“What you do from one year to the next should change systemwise based on personnel,” Mennig said. “I hope people don’t look at me as intimidating but use me as someone who loves the game.
“I don’t care if a coach wants to watch my practice. I’m an open book. Anyone can watch what we do. We have nothing to hide. Let’s learn from each other.”
Isn’t that really what the educational process is about?
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.