‘Old school’ approach works for Talawanda’s – and Ohio’s – winningest woman coach

“Box out girls! Box out!” Mary Jo Huismann yelled from a rolling office chair on the sideline of Talawanda High School’s basketball court in a game against Taylor on Nov. 28.

When Huismann had something to say, all the coaches and assistant coaches listened. Assistant coach Dean Williams will occasionally bend over and keenly listen to soft yet strong voice providing feedback on the game.

Her advice comes with 52 years of coaching experience and the honor of being the only female coach with over 750 wins, according to the Ohio High School Athletic Association. She has accumulated numerous awards for her coaching, including an induction into the Greater Cincinnati Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Taylor was in the lead as the game reached the final quarter, and the stands began to vibrate. Coordinated chants echoed through the court from the Talawanda students, who were dressed in black, black mustaches, eye black and black ski masks. A cacophony of cheers from parents accompanied the students’ battle cries.

To the 76-year-old girls basketball coach’s left was her walker. To her right was the Talawanda’s players sitting in a line, watching Williams pace back and forth. Today Huissmann is still in charge, but Williams is in the process of taking over as head coach.

She sat stoically, swiveling her head back and forth as the ball moved down the court, her facial expression unchanging. Occasionally, her right hand gripped the bottom of her chair, but her eyes remained laser focused on the game.

Huismann said that ever since she was a junior in high school, she knew she wanted to coach.

She began her basketball coaching career in 1969 at her alma mater, Mother of Mercy High School, while earning her graduate degree at the University of Cincinnati. She began her day at Mercy and would travel to UC at 6 p.m. She then coached at Capital University for a year until 1972, when she returned to Mercy. For the next 31 years, she was a teacher and athletic director.

When Mother of Mercy merged with McAuley High School in 2018, Huismann moved to Talawanda instead of retiring because she “just has so much fun” coaching.

The Talawanda girls basketball team struggled until the 2021 season, which is when it gained some major talent. That season and the next, the team won the Southwest Ohio Conference Championship. Last season, the team boasted a 25-0 record until they lost districts.

Going into the 2023-2024 season, the team has lost three starters, who now play Division I in college. Additionally, four players were injured at the beginning of the season, causing another major shift for the team.

“Last season the goal was to win every game,” Huismann said. “The goals for this year are definitely let’s build a team. We need to rebuild, and I think we’ll be alright. There’s talent. We just got to get them to where we want them to play.”

For the first three weeks of practice, Huismann makes sure the players focus on foundational lessons. At the end of the practices, she then decides what the team needs to focus on the next day. Huismann said that when she suddenly got a batch of six assistant coaches, it was a major transition.

“Finally I said, ‘Oh, OK. We have to have rules,’” Huismann said. She made some coaches move to the opposite side of the bench and created a chain of communication that resulted in only one assistant talking to her.

Huismann said she has witnessed all kinds of change throughout her career.

“When I started coaching, the coach was always right and people thanked you and it changed,” Huismann says. “I think a lot of people stopped coaching when their parents got involved as much.”

Another rule she implemented is that she will only talk to parents the day after a game.

“I’ll talk to you the next day after you calm down. After I calm down. That’s it.” Huismann said this is the only way that she can interact with parents after games.

What keeps her coming back is the opportunity to teach life lessons and shape young adults.

“That’s the biggest thing and that’s why you do it,” Huismann said about coaching young adults. “These are all life situations that we have to learn.”

Huismann recalls a recent practice where she had to confront the athletes about complaining to their parents.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to hear from your dad or your mom.’ I said, ‘You want to be an adult, you’re 14. You think you’re an adult. You want your parents to treat you like an adult, you want me to treat you like an adult. And then you have to act like an adult,’” Huismann said.

She said growth comes from taking responsibility.

“You have to make mistakes. Your good plays, your bad plays. You have to understand that you have to be responsible. Nobody else is responsible. I’m not responsible.”

Sophomore Grace Richardson said that one of the main reasons she returned this season is because she has learned so much from the coaches.

Both Grace and sophomore Lyla Spurlock said that Huismann has an “old school” approach to coaching.

Lyla said that Huismann kept the team in line by making them run a lot. If they goofed-off or missed layups, the team had to do push-ups.

“I would say that her style of coaching definitely made us better at basketball and just overall better people,” Lyla said.

Huismann said she appreciates that in high school, coaches are really able to mold the athletes’ technique. She said that in college, many athletes already have their mind made up. She compared coaching college athletes to talking to a wall.

She said that her rule is that when coaches yell at an athlete, the critique must follow up with two good things about the athlete’s performance.

“You know that’s kind of been my philosophy in coaching too,” Huismann said. “You’re going to say something bad, but then, you got to keep things good and turn it around.”

Huismann said the approach was something she had to learn, but it has been helpful in getting through to young athletes.

With two minutes remaining on the clock in the game against Taylor, Talawanda’s aggression increased exponentially. More interceptions, more passes and the ball moves faster down the court.

Rose Bothas-Revalee scored two free-throws, finally giving Talawanda a lead. Followed by an immediate three-pointer from Taylor, the stakes became even higher. What used to be rumbles of claps from the crowd were then roars of cheers and yells.

Huismann sat, analyzing the game in front of her.

Grace rushed down the court, past a double team and swished the ball into the net. It was then 39-37. A timeout was called and the game briefly paused.

Williams looked to the bench and gave an exaggerated sigh, signaling the stress endured during the tumultuous game.

Rose went on to score another free-throw before scoring again in the final seconds, solidifying Talawanda’s win with a score of 42-38.

The team rushed together into a giant cluster and cheers in the middle of the court while Huismann sat contently from her chair.

As the opposing teams ceremoniously wished each other a good game, the coaches from Taylor approached Huismann. One gave a familiar “Hello” and a warm hug. The other shook her hand and congratulated her on her success.

This article was first published by the Oxford Observer, a content partner of the Journal-News.

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