Men’s basketball enters a new era under Ryne Lightfoot’s direction

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  New era; same standard.” This was Ryne Lightfoot’s motto as he stepped from assistant men’s basketball coach to head men’s basketball coach following the retirement of his father, long-time beloved coach Mike Lightfoot. “Our standard is to get to the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) national tournament,” said Lightfoot, reclining in his new office in the Weikamp athletic center. “We’re fourth in the league right now, and typically fourth goes, but for us, we won 16 league games in a row last year, so for us, we feel like it's one of those things that we need to be able to go out there and prove ourselves as the team that doesn’t necessarily have a lot of experience, but we’re not a team of youth.” The championship is the obvious goal for the team, but every team has various goals. What are Lightfoot’s feelings about the future for this program? “I think for me, it's just, in order to have a program that's respected not only across the country, what they bring and the effort level that we have, but I think it's more important to be respected in our own community,” he said. “I want to build something that the community's excited to come watch, our student body's excited for the product that we have out there and that the guys that we have represent Bethel (in an) upstanding way.” “That’s my goal,” he went on, “is that this program never loses the credibility of our community, they understand what it takes to be successful, and for that reason, hopefully, in time, continues to do that (for) years and years to come.” Lightfoot has been at Bethel for a few years as assistant coach, but now that he’s stepping into his father’s position, will things change? “For me, it's one of those things that, I don't look at it as following in my dad's footsteps,” said Lightfoot. “It's kind of creating my own footprint in this program as well. Someone told me one time, 'Those are big shoes to fill,' and I said, 'Yeah, they are. And that's why we plan on bringing our own shoes.' If I try to be him, I'll never accomplish it, but I've got to be able to be myself, create this staff and this team, to take on my identity, to take on our identity as a coaching staff, and not try to recreate who he is, but to be myself as a coach and not really look at it as 'I'm replacing a legend.' I'm just trying to be the best coach as possible, and try to be the best version of me.” Mike Lightfoot does still occasionally stop by Bethel and audit some practices, but Ryne Lightfoot said that he hasn’t felt overrun or told what to do. “He's done a really good job of keeping his distance in terms of allowing me to make it my own,” said Lightfoot, “but I've also called him a few times. I've got an opportunity to use one of the best coaches in the country, who just happens to be my dad and happens to be 30 minutes down the road. He's come and audited a couple of practices, he's looked at our player personnel, he just looks at it from a third-party perspective now, now that he's removed from the program, but never really out of the loop. He knows these guys, he knows the standard that we have, what practices should look like, what championship caliber effort is, and the urgency you have to do that...he understands that.” As daunting as it may seem to take on such a major role, especially from someone so well-known and beloved, Lightfoot said that he absolutely loves his job. “I joked with (the team) the other day, I saw a stat last week that says 85 percent of people wake up and hate going to their jobs,” he said. “And I said, 'for the first time in my life, as a white male from the middle class, I've been a minority.' Because I'm part of the 15 percent. I love to wake up every single day and go to work. I love Bethel, I love these kids, I love the basketball program, I love to coach, I love my job and I love what I do. I don't relate to people who wake up and go to work every single day and hate what they do.” The men’s basketball team has gone through a lot of changes in the past year since Mike Lightfoot’s retirement. In addition to Ryne Lightfoot taking over as head coach, two new assistant coaches have joined the men’s basketball team: Andrew Wingreen and Ryan Ehm. Wingreen is totally new to Bethel, but Ehm, graduate student assistant coach, served as assistant coach of women’s basketball with head coach Eric Gingerich last year. Wingreen and Ehm work with Lightfoot in planning practices, and then work hands-on with the players, planning out individual workouts and reviewing tapes of opponents and the Bethel players to improve strategy. “We'll get game film on our opponents or our own team, we'll watch, but just watching different tendencies, like where a guy likes to dribble, where he likes to go, where teams like to run their offense from,” said Wingreen. “So, we'll just kind of look at film, break that down, and just show our guys the team tendencies and player tendencies, what they're trying to do.” Ehm, in addition to being assistant men’s basketball coach, also coaches Bethel’s junior varsity (JV) men’s basketball team. The JV team is for current Bethel students who have an interest in playing, but aren’t yet of the skill to play varsity. “Our JV program is used as a developmental program,” said Ehm. “So, kids will come in wanting to play college ball, wanting to play at the next level, probably not quite ready yet to play varsity here, so they come in and they get involved in our JV program and we play about 15 or so games this year with that, and we just really work on getting them in the weight room, getting them accustomed to the speed of the college game, going from high school to college level, and just doing everything we can to help make them better basketball players for down the road.” I asked the two what the transition to the men’s basketball staff has been like. “It's been different,” said Wingreen. “The school I came from in South Carolina was very different than Bethel, so just trying to get a new sense of the people on campus, the people I work with, the students, just the way things are run is different. I'm used to having certain resources or certain things or whatever...so the transition's just kind of getting used to a new atmosphere, I think.” “I think for me the transition was just a little bit different, because I've already been in the area and at Bethel, or a part of Bethel, anyway, for over a year now,” said Ehm. “So, I kind of was able to make a little bit of that transition last year, just to campus and what it's about, kind of what Bethel's about, the athletic department, but now transitioning over to the men's side again, just understanding what Coach (Lightfoot) wants, what he wants done, how he wants things done.” Transitioning into a new role is always complicated, particularly if, like Wingreen, you’re coming into a totally new environment blind. I asked what the most difficult part of the transition has been. “I think just everything's new,” said Wingreen. “I mean, the people are new, the way things are done (is) new, all your relationships...I mean, you don't have any. There's no relationships there, so you've got to build those, not just with one or two people, but with an entire group of people.” Wingreen describes himself as a “very relational person,” and he wanted to form deep relationships quickly, but learned that he had to take his time to allow those relationships to deepen and learn the culture in which he now finds himself. “I think at the end of the day, I mean, we're basketball coaches,” said Ehm. “We're here to coach basketball, we're here to coach people, both on and off the court, so while we're trying to learn new things and while we're trying to get acclimated with the system and everything, at the end of the day, we're just simply here to coach and kind of do our jobs with that.” Lightfoot’s been a part of the Bethel athletic environment for a while, so his transition was a bit different than Wingreen’s and Ehm’s. I asked Lightfoot if that transition from assistant coach to head coach has been difficult. “Luckily, being a part of my dad's staff last year, and with Coach Natali, a lot of us never really felt like an assistant,” he said, “we felt like...we had three head coaches, and so for us, the transition hasn't been anything too wild, and it's been one of those processes for me where I felt as if I was already doing a lot of coaching already. I was given a lot of authority at a young age to make decisions both offensively and scout-based and substitution, game strategy. I was very, very involved in that process as an assistant, so now, diving into the head coaching role, I'm learning more and more that you can't be single-minded, and there's a lot of tasks that you have to do as head coach, where as an assistant, you're just diving into relationships, you're diving into players, but now as a head coach, there's suddenly more hats that you have to wear.” While Lightfoot is getting used to all the new hats he has to wear, Wingreen and Ehm said that they felt that the team was taking well to Lightfoot’s appointment as head coach. “From what I've seen, I've seen guys very comfortable with Ryne,” said Wingreen. “I've seen them respond well to him. Mike still comes around a lot, and there's no awkwardness. Everyone embraces him, and it's (been a) really smooth transition in my opinion, so I haven't seen any negativity or any staff that's not liking the new era. So, for me, I don't know any different, but I've thought it's been (a) very smooth and very positive transition.” All three coaches on the staff mentioned relationships with the players as major aspects of their coaching strategies, and discussed how basketball can teach lessons for life in general. Lightfoot said that he wants to embrace his players and teach them life lessons on the court that they can carry out of the locker room. “We want to make sure that we're different,” said Lightfoot. “Our guys know one: that I want to be a blue-collar guy. We talk about these simple things that we can control and the work ethic that you have to do to be able to be successful. We talk about being on time. We talk about being respectful. We talk about being coachable, bringing energy, being your best and then believe in something more. So, for us, we talk about this being different...I think our guys, when they look at me, I want them to look at me, and say 'that's not the status quo, he's somebody that's different in terms of the energy, the passion that he has.'” “I think we just want to keep growing as a program,” said Wingreen. “…As our seniors graduate, we want them to leave a mark on the program, we want them to show the underclassmen and the new guys coming in how things are done, what hard work looks like, what the culture's all about, what our expectations are and just kind of embrace that and lay it out so as classes keep graduating and we bring in new classes that we don't lose a step, we don't lose a beat, everyone's just bought in, we stay focused on each other, stay focused on the process, and we don't get outside of that.” I also asked Lightfoot if he had any fears for this upcoming year. “I'm not sure I have any fears,” he said. “My biggest fear for this group, or maybe uncertainties that I have about this group is, what do we do when adversity strikes? I think we had great leadership last year, I think we have guys who are emerging as leaders now, what do we do when tough times hit?” Some former tough times he mentioned were the various injuries sustained by key players last year, including a knee injury for Clay Yeo and hand injuries for Caleb Oatjen and Ryan Wassink. But those concerns may just be outweighed by Lightfoot’s major excitement for this year: building the team. “I'm naturally a builder,” he said. “I'd much rather build a house than maintain a house. That's just how I am, that's how I'm wired, and so for me, it's a way...it gets me excited every single day to wake up and have an opportunity to come in here and make this our own. To build this team how we see it.” “New era; same standard.” That motto stands true for the coaching staff as they exit the era of Mike Lightfoot and enter a new era. Lightfoot is excited to build a new team, and is optimistic about his players. Will they make the national championship? Will the “new era” grow to become as legendary as the old? Looks like we’ll have to keep our eyes on the shot clock as we await the answers to those questions.
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