Goreville’s Mike Helton always believed coaching went further than winning championship trophies.
Helton stepped away from his final game coaching the Goreville Lady Blackcats on Saturday after being confronted with a mixture of emotions. His emotions were less about him and more about his senior athletes playing in their final game of high school without a chance at a postseason.
Coaching in his 28th season, Helton understood what it required to win in the playoffs with five sectional titles, 11 regional titles and 15 conference titles under his belt. Mastering how to win 512 basketball games in his career only added to his legacy.
“Most years, even though we lost, we went into that last game with an opportunity to move on to a regional, sectional or state title,” Helton said. “It was a different set of emotions for those girls. Seeing their emotions probably impacted me more than my own did because it’s always a difficult moment when seniors are done.”
All three of Helton’s seniors in his final year were guards: Destani Bennett, Katie Benard and Miley Kwiatkowski. They were all a part of Goreville’s 2019-20 team that won a regional with a 22-11 record.
Fast forward to playing just 17 games the following season in a pandemic year where the Lady Blackcats finished 9-8. Helton was less focused on a winning record and more channeled into watching his players grow into their own.
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“I told the girls in our reception afterwards that basketball isn’t really about winning trophies,” Helton said. “It’s always been more about seeing the development. Next to that is the relationships we build together.”
Helton was honored on Saturday in a reception for his retirement. The young 59-year-old coach has had five former players step in to be his assistant coaches throughout his career. There were only a few occasions where it wasn’t a former player, but to be recognized in front of former players, family, friends and colleagues was a special moment.
It allowed Helton to remember those relationships he had built through basketball.
“That was awesome and nerve-racking,” Helton said. “I’ve been touched to have several former players that couldn’t be there message me. It’s great to hear from so many great young women.”
Helton knew a reception for his retirement was a possibility, but didn’t know how that would fall under COVID-19 regulations. The team managed to perform it safely in the school cafeteria.
Life after basketball won’t stop for Helton. The former social studies and computer teacher plans on following his players careers, attending Goreville games, playing more golf and watching film. His wife Valery has one year left before she retires as an English Language Arts teacher at Harrisburg Middle School.
“At this point, my life just doesn’t see me sitting at home on the couch,” Helton said with a chuckle. “Last year, and this year especially, I’ve made some coaching friends on Twitter because of quarantine. We’ll continue to share game tape with one another and I’ll probably take time to travel with my wife.”
Football in Masks
Prep football is set to begin this weekend for many schools and student-athletes will be playing in masks.
Fairfield coach Justin Townsend’s players will be playing in masks that attach to the inside of the facemask and helmet using a velcro mechanism. Townsend had questions regarding how a normal facemask would have worked with players wearing mouthguards.
“We got them in last week and practiced towards the end of week using them,” Townsend said on Monday. “It made it hard for some athletes to see because every helmet fits a kid differently. I don’t think it will be an issue once we get more used to them. It’s more of an inconvenience than anything.”