Matt Elledge took over the reins of Highland High School’s struggling girls basketball program for the 2001-02 campaign. By his fourth year at the helm, the Pittsfield native had already turned the Lady Bulldogs into what would be a consistent powerhouse throughout southern Illinois.
Now, Elledge joins his former coach and mentor, Pittsfield High’s Dave Bennett, and other Illinois prep coaching legends in the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) Hall of Fame.
Elledge will officially be inducted at the 45th annual IBCA Hall of Fame ceremony scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday, May 6, at Redbird Arena on the Illinois State University campus. Ticket information will be announced at a later date. The IBCA has been selecting Hall of Famers since 1971. Categories include: coaches, career coaches, teams, players, officials, news media and friends of basketball.
“Being inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame is both flattering and humbling at the same time; it is such a nice recognition, and I truly am honored,” Elledge said.
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But all of the countless hours and long days in the gyms did not come without many sacrifices.
“I have truly been blessed to have such a supportive family and a wonderful wife, Debbie, and my family who not only allowed me to pursue my dreams but was with me every step of the way,” Elledge said. “Also, my parents and Debbie’s parents were so supportive even though we were missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with them.”
But even though his Hall of Fame induction is an individual honor for him, Elledge was quick to point out that he received a lot of help from the players, assistant coaches and families.
“I have had the privilege to have coached some great kids, great athletes who bought into the system and who made me look much better than I am,” he said. “I also want to thank all the coaches who assisted me and gave up so much to better the program, like coach (Chris) Hartlieb, coach (Dianne) Voss and coach (Bruce) Deibert. I also want to thank the parents and families that were so supportive and helped make our jobs easier. I truly have been blessed.”
Elledge coached for 24 years, 22 as a varsity coach (1993-2016). He amassed an impressive 419-236 overall record.
Back in 1992, Elledge started out coaching the Pittsfield Junior High girls basketball team, then moved on to varsity coach for the Lady Saukees from 1993 to 2001. While at the helm of the varsity girls, Elledge compiled a 156-76 record and built one of the strongest programs in that area, which included a trip to the Elite Eight at Redbird Arena in 1997.
Elledge spent 15 years coaching in the Highland School District, the first 10 years with the varsity girls program. He followed that up with one season with the middle school boys before serving the last four years leading the Highland High School boys team.
In 10 years at the helm of the HHS girls basketball program, coach Elledge won 68 percent (201-100) of his games and directed the team to a super-sectional; six regional crowns in seven years, including five in a row from 2007-2011; one sectional championship; and six consecutive Mississippi Valley Championships. He was named the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) Coach of the Year after both the 2008 and 2009 campaigns.
Elledge next went on to coach the Highland Middle School eighth-grade boys basketball team for a year where he was reunited with a group of boys — which included his youngest son Austin — he had coached through youth leagues since they were in third grade. Under Elledge’s leadership, the HMS squad had a historic season, going 21-4 and capturing the program’s first-ever Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association Class L State Championship.
Then Elledge ended his coaching career coaching those same boys through their four years of high school, along with his oldest son Aaron’s final two years. In his four years at the helm of the HHS boys, Elledge’s teams also posted a winning record (62-60) and won three Mississippi Valley Conference championships, including reeling off a perfect 10-0 sweep of the conference in his final season last year.
“Being around all of his practices growing up, seeing all the late nights and early mornings he put in to make his programs great really is remarkable looking back on it,” said Austin Elledge, who is a freshman playing basketball at Augustana College, a Division III powerhouse in Rockford, Ill. “What he did for us guys growing up, traveling, getting us in tournaments, and coaching us kids — even while he was taking the girls program to different heights — is one thing me and our team will forever be grateful for. He really has dedicated his life to coaching, and it’s been pretty neat to see it both in the gym and at home. He most certainly deserves it, and I am extremely proud for him.”
Former longtime Highland High School Athletic Director Steve Lanxon reaffirmed that Matt Elledge took the girls and boys basketball programs to new levels.
“Everyone who played the Bulldogs when he was head coach knew they were in for a battle,” Lanxon said. “His teams were well prepared and conditioned to go four quarters. His knowledge of the game really set him apart from many coaches. His ability to make adjustments during the game gave our teams a competitive advantage even when we were out-manned physically. Really going to be missed as a coach. I also liked the way he built a complete program from top to bottom in the district. Coaches from grade school to high school were working the same philosophy and working for the same goal — to win a conference championship.”
Bennett, Elledge’s high school coach at Pittsfield and a IBCA Hall of Famer, sponsored the nomination, while current HHS athletic director Caleb Houchins, also a Pittsfield native, sent in Elledge’s information to the IBCA.
“Coach Elledge is a great coach, but an even better person,” Houchins said. “For all of the basketball knowledge he gave his players, he taught them even more about life. The wins, postseason accomplishments, and awards speak for themselves. Matt Elledge is a great basketball coach, but more than that he is a great mentor. If you talk to his former players, they will tell you the lessons Matt taught them carried on long past the basketball court. Highland and Pittsfield were both very lucky to have had Matt coach in their district.”
Many memories and life lessons
Debbie Elledge has been through all of it every step of the way for the past 24 years, and she said her husband is most deserving of this honor, because he has inspired countless girls and boys for over nearly a quarter of a century.
“Basketball would not be the same in Pittsfield and Highland without him,” she said. “All those thousands of hours in the gym really did make a difference. Aaron, Austin and I are so proud of him. I couldn’t even begin to name the countless girls that became like family and big sisters to our boys. It was our life, and I mean that in every way. Matt’s dedication to build that program was amazing to watch. He was in that gym year round with summer camps for the younger kids, summer leagues, countless fundraisers, the creation of HLBA (Highland Lady Bulldogs Association) and those fun summer trips that truly took our Highland girls out of the box. He honestly could not have asked for some of the best girls and parents you could ever dream of. Every season was amazing.”
Coach Elledge said he wanted to teach his players the right way and be the best they can be on the court and in life.
“I wanted them to have the courage to compete hard for everything whether for jobs or in life,” he said. “I wanted them to continue to work hard to be successful in whatever they did. Hard work will pay off and you better yourself through hard work. I also wanted them to get out of the box. Like when we took that first summer camp trip, there were kids who had never flown on a plane before.”
Carrie Walberg Reed played for Elledge from 2003-2007 before going on to play four years of college basketball at Illinois College in Jacksonville.
“He is genuine, passionate, dedicated, and hard working,” Reed said. “He instilled a winning mentality in us and losing was not acceptable, which transformed Highland into a basketball dynasty. He did great things for the program and for us players, like taking a bunch of high school teenagers across the country to play in summer tournaments and exposing us to life outside of the box. Those are experiences I won’t forget, and I reference them still today, 10 years later. It’s not just about learning the game of basketball, but he taught us so much more.”
Some of things he taught his players were basic skill sets like teamwork, responsibility, dedication, commitment, leadership and timeliness.
“But most importantly for me, he challenged me,” Reed said. “He pushed me, not just as a player but as a person to work hard for what you want: be dedicated, be confident, and most importantly, be a leader. I’ve always been proud to say I played for Highland, thanks to this basketball legacy and the dynasty coach Elledge has built over the last decade. But now I’m even more proud to say I got to play for him.
“A big thank you goes to coach Elledge for all he has taught me, my teammates, and those who came before and after. We are forever grateful for him. Elledge was not just a coach to me, but a family member and role model.”
Influential and inspirational
Stephanie Harris Potthast definitely was influenced by Elledge and gained inspiration from him. She played for him for four years (2004-2008), which culminated in the winningest season in school history at the time, when the team posted a 30-5 record and made an appearance in the Elite Eight.
Potthast went on to serve as one of his assistants before taking over the HHS girls program for a year. Potthast then went on to coach at Jerseyville for a season and now heads the Triad girls basketball program.
“I had the honor of both playing and coaching underneath him, and the success of the Highland girls basketball program to this day can largely be attributed to what he built over his tenure as coach,” Potthast said. “He always held all of his players to high expectations and pushed each and every single person to be the best athlete and person they could be. That is the reason for the success of his teams.
“As a current coach, I strive to be the kind of coach that he was/still is, and I sometimes find myself thinking about, ‘What would Coach Elledge have done?’
“A lot of what I know about basketball comes directly from him, and I know a lot of others who can say the same. He has touched the lives of many athletes both in Pittsfield and Highland, and I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this induction.”
During his tenure, Elledge also coached the two of the all-time career leading scorers in Highland girls basketball history in Christy Trame Weiss (2001-2005) and Katie Hempen (2006-2010).
Weiss went on to play volleyball at Indiana State University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
“I had the privilege of calling Matt Elledge my coach for four years,” Weiss said. “His sincere concern for players was obvious and his passion for the game was inspiring. He gave me a chance and stuck with me through good and bad decisions. His unwavering dedication, commitment, and sacrifices did not go unnoticed. The fundamentals he instilled have helped me to succeed in all endeavors, and for that I am truly thankful.”
Hempen, who went on to play college basketball Arizona State University after one year at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, wanted to give a shout-out to Elledge because she said that he helped all her dreams come true.
“I know he is the reason I am where I am at today,” Hempen said. “I want to thank Matt Elledge for being my extended family and thank him for his guidance. This award was meant for Matt Elledge.”
Brittne Zobrist was the starting point guard under Elledge when they won the Mascoutah Invitational Girls Basketball Tournament in late December 2006. Zobrist coaches softball and currently serves as the pitching/catching coach at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis.
She said Elledge taught her how to prepare for games — that being able to outsmart your opponent was more important than just having the best athletes.
“Coach Elledge inspires my coaching style,” Zobrist said. “I have used many of his methods with my athletes. Holding them accountable to their effort and pushing them to their limits.”
Coach turned into fan
After nearly a quarter of a century of coaching many other parents’ kids from both his hometown of Pittsfield and then Highland which culminated with his two sons, Elledge made the final decision to step away from coaching and sit in the stands as a fan to watch Austin pursue his dream to play college basketball at Augustana College.
“We’ve already been to three or four games, and what a fun year it has been,” Elledge said. “He is playing a lot on the JV team and doing really well, averaging about 25 minutes and about 15 points a game. He likes the coaches, his teammates, the program and the games. He knows his time is coming.”
In in a bit of irony, Austin’s college coach at Augustana College, Grey Giovanne, was listed right under his dad’s name on the list of coaches being inducted into the IBCA Hall of Fame.