She got game

Hickman girls coach Tonya Mirts lives
and breathes for basketball. The secret to her
206-43 record? Equal shares of discipline
and devotion. Here she opens up on her love
of the game.
Sunday, November 23, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:23 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Picture five lines of high school girls basketball players. Each line is five players deep. Each of these players has a ball, and row by row, players sprint down the court, stop for crossovers first at the free-throw line, then at mid-court and then at the next free-throw line. Assistant coaches swipe at the players’ crossovers.

There is an air of discipline and focus in the gym. An injured player lies on her back, ice wrapped around a knee and works on her shooting form. She flicks a ball into the air repeatedly.

The pounding of the players’ movements, coupled with the dribbling of 25 basketballs, sounds like a stampede. The gym is filled with a rhythmic, mechanical cacophony. The voices of the coaches rise over the din. The shrillness of a whistle cuts through the noise, and within seconds, the team moves into a new drill. The transition is near-silent. The efficiency is as startling as the volume.

Three hours later, Hickman High School’s first girls basketball practice of the 2003-2004 season finishes. Coach Tonya Mirts is sitting in her office discussing the upcoming season with the assistant coach, Courtney Diehl, when the door opens and in walks Mirts’ husband, Doug, Hickman’s athletic director, and their two daughters. Karley, 9, and Kelsey, 5, crawl into Mirts’ lap.

“Do you think basketball is important to your Mommy?” Mirts asks her daughters.

“Yes,” they say in unison. Mirts and Diehl burst into laughter.

A former basketball player for MU, Mirts is beginning her 10th season as Hickman’s girls basketball coach. In her time there, she has compiled a 206-43 record. Her team ranks 24th in the nation.

Mirts also teaches exercise physiology at Hickman. She spoke with The Columbia Missourian about her passion for basketball.

The Columbia Missourian: You teach. You have two kids. You are married. You coach your daughter’s soccer team and you do this. You must really love basketball.

Tonya Mirts: Well, it’s just a passion of mine. For whatever reason, I liked it as a kid, and the more I liked it, the more I worked at it and developed my skills, and it became something I was good at. I believe it really reflects a lot of things in life. To be a great basketball player, I think you gotta work really hard, and I believe in a hard work ethic. I believe that whatever you try to do, you need to fully invest yourself, so I fully invest myself.

What other game can you get such a high of a high and the next minute a low of a low? I am an emotional person. A lot of the times I wear my emotions on my shoulders. That might be a fault. That might be a strength of mine at different times, but I feel like the game of basketball is like that. It’s something I have played since I was little. I’ve been involved in (basketball) all the way through college as a player, and now the most rewarding thing is being able to teach something you love so much to kids. And hopefully they are getting life-lessons along the way.

I think that’s the biggest thing for anybody in life is to do something they really, really care about and then passion comes with it. It makes all the difference in the world. I’m living the dream. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a science teacher and a basketball coach, and that’s what I am doing. And the icing on the cake obviously are the little girls that I get to come home to when I walk in the door.

CM: Did you have any coaches or older players that mentored you?

TM: I think my high school coach was very much an icon. I believe in some ways I have a similar coaching style to him. He was just so knowledgeable about the game. He studied the game. He worked at the game. All the qualities that I admired in a person, and he was an upstanding citizen. He reflected the things that he preached, and he practiced what he preached as far as that was concerned. He had a large influence on my life.

CM: Who was your high school coach?

TM: His name was William Rider. He actually went by ‘Bunny’ because he could jump real high. No doubt, I think that my family, that my parents, instilled the values and reinforced those values that coach Rider tried to instill. I just shared the same passion as him.

CM: Do you experience that mutual passion with your players?

TM: I think that kids are here because they are really passionate about basketball. I connect better with kids that are just great athletes that are here. You know, they’re doing basketball and it’s helping us out. We’re learning from each other, and I’m caring about them. You know, you really connect with kids and people that have the same passion you do.

CM: Were your parents athletic?

TM: Well, I’m adopted, but my adopted father got drafted in the minor leagues for baseball, but he chose at that time to be a banker in the business world because he didn’t think he could ever make a living. And my mom, she belonged to the G.A.A., Girls Athletic Association. She was in the band and (she) bowled.

As far as my genetic parents, the only thing I know about my parents is that my mom got pregnant in high school at a young age. She was a cheerleader, and he was a quarterback. I was born in ’67 in South Dakota, so the opportunities for girls’ athletics might have been pretty low. That was before Title IX.

But what I will tell you is my (adopted) parents gave me every opportunity to get involved in whatever I wanted to get involved in, and they wholeheartedly supported me so I could thrive in whatever environment I wanted to. I don’t know where that work ethic comes from — whether it was taught, whether it’s intrinsic or what, but I think it was a great quality.

CM: You bring a lot of intensity to your practices. It’s really a whole different level. Is that something you were taught and do you maintain that level through your whole day?

TM: Well, yeah, very much so. I think if you talk to any of my exercise physiology students, one of the characteristics they’ll say about me is high-energy. I believe you have to be invested in what you do. I am not a wide, diverse person, meaning, I don’t get too far out of my area. I enjoy listening to music and I’ll sing at it, but I’m not a very good singer. I played the piano for several years, and I still can’t hear when I am playing the wrong note. I do what I do, and I try to do those things well. I am not really diversified.

CM: You coach basketball, and your husband is Hickman’s athletic director. What role do sports play in your family, and also, what are you going to do if your daughters don’t take to sports?

TM: That’s a good question because the two children I have are very different. One is very, very aggressive, and one of them is a little bit more passive. I think having kids changed me as a coach in the sense that I realized the kids I was coaching and getting intense with were other people’s children, and somebody might be doing that to my child someday. And even though I don’t think that I am a very relaxed coach by any stretch of the imagination, the kids today are seeing a very different coach than I was six or seven years ago. I was extremely intense. Almost to the point where (I was) sometimes maybe being confrontational. I think the kids and I get along pretty well, but every personality doesn’t fit that system.

The bottom line is this: I love my kids a lot, and whatever they choose to do, whether it be music, whether it be play, whether it be athletics, I want them to be involved with a group of people that have a positive influence on their lives, and I want them to be invested in whatever they do. To work at it, to be as good at it as they possibly can, that’s the value that I am trying to teach as a basketball coach.

We’ve got some super-natural athletes in that basketball gym that bust their tail. We’ve got other kids who are just working their tail and the only reason they are there is if they love it and they contribute that way. So, hopefully the message that I am sending is work hard at whatever you decide to do, and whatever you choose to do, do it wholeheartedly. That would be the message I would try to send to any kid.

CM: You said your coaching style has changed over the years. Have your values remained the same?

TM: Oh yeah. That’s the thing. What I will say is I won’t treat all kids the same, but I try to treat all kids fairly. One kid maybe will just have difficulty with self motivation, and that kid you might have to be on them a little bit. Other kids, if you are on them, they start to fall apart. And that’s not the whole point. The point is to get the best out of them; they are already a self starter. They are already trying to do whatever they are supposed to do wholeheartedly.

CM: What’s it like to watch your players grow up over four years?

TM: It’s hard. Oh it’s fun, so fun. They grow up and just when you think they’ve figured it all out, and they are just this great person, they go away. And that’s the hard part about it, but I don’t think there’s anything more rewarding as a coach as to see them walk into the gym or come by and say ‘Hey,’ at school, or come by at practice, or come to a game because there is no doubt that the kids that have graduated from the program are invested in our school’s success. And I think that’s what’s very rewarding. The kids, they all think, ‘Well, there’s a price to pay. There’s a measure.’ Their bar is up there, and they are coming back to check and see if the kids behind them are fulfilling the expectations. And I think that’s neat.

CM: You run such a successful program where things do go smoothly and do work. Obviously when people go out into the world, things aren’t always successful. Things don’t always work. Do you ever have players come back to you when this happens?

TM: Well, I really haven’t had a kid (pause). All of them maybe have not graduated college, but they are all functioning, being very productive citizens. But I have had kids who have had some controversy. I might not be the person in their lives that they are going to come back and talk to. I have had players come back that are having difficulties, and just sitting down talking. Kind of getting back and reconnecting with them.

CM: Does what you teach get instilled in your players?

TM: Not only do I want them to get the most out of themselves, my true job is to not only get that, but to put it together as a team. And as a team, my true job is to try to convince the kids that they are going to be greater as a group than any one of the individuals could be on their own. And they have to buy into that.

When you get a team that buys into that, you know they get this euphoric feeling, and then when they go away and they try to associate it with some other team and that isn’t there, it’s desperately missed.

And hopefully they can take that into the business world, into the world of athletics if they continue it, or just in their own personal lives — that part of being in a group, of being there for the group, and what the group can achieve beyond just what I can achieve. No doubt about it. We want super individual performances, but we want those super individual performances to work with each other in a unit.

CM: What is your typical work day during basketball season?

TM: I’m up at 6 a.m. I’m ready to go by 6:15, for sure before 6:20 — dressed, ready to go, out the door. I’m getting my kids up bright and early. Basketball season, there’ll be late nights. It’s not unusual, you know, midnight, 1 a.m. to end the day, but every night is not like that.

But when we’re in the thick of a season, I will review the film twice the night of the game, because not only do we have stats, but I take the stats off the film as well. That gives me the chance to “run that back.” And my husband does this with me. So late at night, kids are in bed, and usually he’s got it figured out by now when he has to run something back. When you break down a tape like that, usually the tape takes a minimum of an hour to do, and you do that a couple of times, I’m pretty well prepared to give (the assistants) feedback the next day (when we) have a staff meeting before our practice and say, ‘These are the things we didn’t do well last night. I’m uncomfortable with these things. These are things we did really well, let’s suggest practice here.’ Feedback, give me your feedback, what do you think?

CM: Why is this so important to you?

TM: It’s what I love to do. I think anything that you invest yourself in and that you like to do is important to you.

CM: Are you excited about the upcoming season?

TM: Ah yeah. Can you tell (laughs)? I’m very excited. I think any coach that’s not excited and passionate doesn’t belong in a gym with high school kids. Do you know what it’s like to be around 16- and 17-year-old kids all day? They have no thought about ‘Woe is me,’ or ‘It’s raining today.’ They are just like vitality like you wouldn’t believe. Nothing can hurt them. They are just invincible.

High school kids are invincible. I think that’s a great quality when you are with them all the time, but obviously as a parent and adult that’s a scary quality, too, because they don’t always think about the third, fourth, fifth thing that’s going to happen down the road to them or the consequences of their actions. But man, they’re enthusiastic. You know, I feed off their energy big-time.

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