There are two neighbors that live near the golf course in Okawville with a combined 1,039 high school basketball coaching victories.
One is Illinois state senator Dave Luechtefeld, whose Okawville Rockets teams won 738 games from 1963 to 2000. The other is the man that followed him on the bench and once played for him, Jon Kraus.
Kraus picked up career wins No. 300 and No. 301 over the weekend and cited Luechtefeld’s influence for helping guide his coaching path. Luechtefeld still stands 11th all-time on the Illinois career coaching victories list.
“I spent four years as the freshman coach (under Luechtefeld) and that was some of the most valuable experience I could get,” said Kraus, whose team gave him his 300th career win Friday when Shane Ganz banked home a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Columbia. “Just watching Coach Luechtefeld and Coach Mike Smith, the assistant he had for 35 years ... just watching the ways they dealt with kids, was great.
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“I watched the way Coach (Luechtefeld) dealt with player and parents, some of the things that people don’t see behind the scenes. I learned a lot.”
I watched the way Coach (Luechtefeld) dealt with player and parents, some of the things that people don’t see behind the scenes. I learned a lot.
Okawville basketball coach Jon Kraus
Kraus said he also learned from the man poised to become the winningest coach at any four-year college in history, longtime McKendree University coach Harry Statham.
Adding together Statham’s 1,098 career wins and the 738 by Luechtefeld, the last two coaches Kraus played for have a staggering and incredible 1,836 career wins.
“The experiences that I had playing were awesome and it obviously helped me tremendously in coaching,” Kraus said.
Now 41, Kraus presides over a red-hot Rockets team that is 21-3 and has won eight in a row. Okawville, long considered a basketball hotbed for talent and hard-core basketball fans in a mostly rural area of Washington County, is ranked second in the Class 1A state poll and is coming off a super-sectional appearance last season.
2,137.Number of career victories by Okawville coach Jon Kraus and the two coaches he played for, Dave Luechtefeld and Harry Statham.
“It’s a credit to our kids and to the program,” said Kraus, who downplayed his own contributions while highlighting the work done by his players and coaching staff. “It was what Coach Luechtefeld built year ago and I just try to go on from there, trying to get our kids to win as many games as we can.”
It was a pretty wild one as milestone victories go, winning on a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“It was a really fun game, a great high school game to be part of,” Kraus said. “It was two good high school teams that were well-prepared for the game. Some nights you’re on one end of that shot and some nights you’re on the other end. We were fortunate to be on the right end of that.”
Ryan Heck has been on the coaching staff with Kraus since 2005. He also played for Luechtefeld, so Heck has a unique perspective on what makes both coaches successful.
We respect every team that we play and we play those teams for a reason. Sometimes our record is not gaudy, but it helps our kids and makes us compete at a high level in the postseason. By the postseason, we’ve seen everything and that’s been our goal.
“Jon’s demanding of them, even when things are good he makes sure the kids aren’t resting on their laurels,” Heck said. “There are a lot of similarities. They demand respect, they don’t let you look too far ahead — and they’re both big on focusing on the task at hand.”
Under Kraus since 2000, Okawville has won five regional titles, three sectionals and won 24 or more games five times. The Rockets are led by junior Division I prospect Noah Frederking and a balanced lineup that includes Ganz, Brad Fuhrhop, Alec Wisneski and Brendan Killion.
One thing Heck knew was that Kraus would be the last guy to play up any aspect of his 300th win.
“He’s plays a lot of things close to the vest,” Heck said. “He knew it was going to happen this season but as far as which individual game it was, he probably had no idea. He takes everything super-serious and that’s part of what makes our team so good.
“He doesn’t ride the highs or lows like a lot of the kids or our fans.”
Kraus has continued the Okawville tradition of loading up the schedule in preparation for the playoffs. Despite their smaller enrollment, the Rockets once played teams like Belleville East, Belleville West, Althoff and O’Fallon in any given season.
Their schedule still includes most of the top small-schools in the region with a few larger ones tossed in as well.
“I think people in town would be disappointed if we didn’t play those types of teams,” Kraus said. “They enjoy watching good basketball. We respect every team that we play and we play those teams for a reason. Sometimes our record is not gaudy, but it helps our kids and makes us compete at a high level in the postseason.
“By the postseason, we’ve seen everything and that’s been our goal.”
Okawville’s picturesque and cozy Luechtefeld Gymnasium is still used, but varsity games are played at the spacious O-rena. Talented players and teams have been drawing huge crowds there since it opened several years ago.
“When you have success you see a lot more people and a lot more kids coming to the games,” Kraus said. “They see the high school kids having success and they want to be just like those guys.
“That’s how the program has always been.”