Don’t tell anyone, but I saw Seward coach Bryan Zollinger smile.
It doesn’t happen often, and the few times I’ve seen it was a cynical joke with an official.
But Zollinger was genuinely happy Tuesday after winning the Region 6 tournament.
The last time Zollinger won the tournament was in 2008, but the claim was that he won with former Seward coach Dave Brown’s players.
That may have been true.
And maybe Zollinger inherited a program that had built success under Brown.
But he wasn’t content with having a successful year or two.
Zollinger wanted to put his own stamp of the Saints program.
And he has done that.
Zollinger practices hard, plays hard, and he expects his team to do the same.
After the game, the players that had to go through the pain of playing for Zollinger each took an opportunity to hug the man that guided them to the Region 6 championship.
The Saints were only two points away form being back-to-back Region 6 champions.
Brown may have turned Seward into a contender, but Zollinger is taking that success to a new level.
Even with a huge lead, Zollinger was still coaching his team to play for perfection.
“We wanted to close the door,” he said of the last couple of minutes of the championship game. “We needed to manage the clock, We didn’t have to shoot quick. Finish the game.”
You see, Zollinger is one of us. He played at Southwestern Heights and then for the Saints.
He moved on, became a coach, and found his way back home.
He knows he is coaching in a working class community, and he brings that blue-collar style to the basketball court.
His teams finish strong because they have the gas in the tank from challenging practices to see a game through to the end.
When Daveon Boardingham suffered an ankle injury and missed several games in the middle of the season, Zollinger didn’t make any excuses. He challenged his team to step up.
When I first met Zollinger, I found it hard to get him to loosen up in an interview. After the season fun night I tried to get coach to joke a bit about the free throw contest between the men and women’s coaches. The women’s coaches won, but Zollinger, as serious as a heart attack, said he had stated that he had made his shots.
It’s easier to get Zollinger to enjoy the moment from time to time, but not very often, because he doesn’t find success in a win here or a win there.
He is looking at the bigger picture, and he and his players enjoy championships.