STRYKER — As he gathered his coaching staff and girls basketball team together after school one day toward the end of February, longtime Stryker girls basketball coach Steve Brown — a self-described “mess” for situations like these — knew he was about to face one of the more emotional moments of his life.

The team had been eliminated from the postseason tournament a few days prior, but after what started as an up-and-down year for the Panthers, the team rallied to win the last seven games of the regular season to clinch a share of its fourth consecutive Buckeye Border Conference title.

The end of every season is tough on Brown, but this one was all the more difficult, because after the team crammed into assistant coach Conner Varner’s classroom that afternoon, Brown shared the news that he was retiring after 22 seasons at the helm.

Brown said he’s never been sure when he would stop coaching, but when the season came to an end this winter, it felt right.

“I was pretty close with this senior class,” Brown said. “But you always have another group coming through that you’d like to stick with, and it was always going to be that way. I have four grandkids now, and I just felt it was time.

“I don’t know when it creeped into my mind. It wasn’t during the season, because my focus is always on the season and the kids. I miss it already, and I miss the kids already, but we’re in good hands.”

In some ways, it’s the end of an era for the Panthers. What Brown and his teams were able to do — 342 wins, 15 BBC titles, five district titles and two regional final appearances — few would be able to replicate.

But with a trio of Brown’s former players set to take over the program in head coach Varner, a 2014 Stryker graduate, and assistants Taylor Haines (2017) and Melissa Andres (2004), in addition to the backing of an entire Stryker community Brown says has been there every step of the way, he’s confident the success of the team will live on.

“Everybody who was ever part of this, I don’t know how I could ever thank them,” said Brown, who insists his contributions to the program are minimal compared to that of his players, assistants and the community. “I can’t even mention names, because if I mention names, I know I’ll forget 90 percent of them. … It wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for all those people. There’s so many people to thank and so many people responsible for where we’re at.”

‘WHERE I’M SUPPOSED TO BE’

It’s the first day of June, and as Brown sits back at the kitchen table of his home on the south side of Stryker, he laughs about some memories, cries about others, but no matter what it is, he often brings up the same point.

“This is where I’m supposed to be,” he says.

As a 1980 graduate of Stryker High School, Brown has bled blue and white all his life, and he’s always loved the game of basketball. He was never the star of the teams he played on, and he’ll be quick to tell you he played on a squad featuring four players averaging double-figures in scoring.

“But I wasn’t one of them,” he says. “I played defense and got rebounds.”

If there was any one thing Brown appreciated most from his playing days at Stryker, though, he says it’s the life lessons he learned from his coaches Ralph Ruffer and Dan Kline, and he always marveled at the idea of one day becoming a coach to make a similar kind of impact.

Brown said he got his first shot at coaching when Maurice Zuver — then the Stryker varsity boys basketball coach — called him up in the mid-1980s asking him to help as a junior high coach, and while the Panthers struggled in the years the two worked together, Zuver said he saw something special in Brown’s coaching ability.

“I knew if he was going to stay in it, he was going to be alright,” Zuver said. “The greatness he went on to, I don’t know if you can ever predict that. I just knew when he hired on, that he had qualities where you didn’t have to worry about anything, and he displayed them all the time. He was very enthusiastic, he treated people the right way, and you could see that right off the bat.”

Brown eventually left Stryker for a few seasons to assist Kirk Lehman with the Tinora boys, before returning for a year to assist Doug DeGroff with the Stryker girls. He received his first head coaching job with the Hilltop boys in the mid-1990s, where he stayed for four years, but stepped down at the end of the 1997-98 season when his children in Stryker were reaching the age where they were getting involved in sports.

As fate would have it, though, DeGroff stepped down from the Stryker girls varsity job just as the 1998-99 school year was beginning. Not long after, both DeGroff and the Stryker administration called Brown to gauge his interest in the position.

Just weeks prior, Brown had no plans of coaching in the upcoming season, but it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

And as he thinks back on the sequence 22 years later, Brown says it all worked out.

“This is where I’m supposed to be,” he says.

BUILDING A PROGRAM

As dominant as Stryker’s teams have been for the better part of the last two decades, Brown’s career leading the Panthers didn’t start that way.

With DeGroff’s late departure from the team, Brown didn’t get to work with his girls at all in the summer. In addition, the Panthers were notorious for playing zone defense under DeGroff, a strategy that conflicted with Brown’s man-to-man concepts at the time.

As a result, there was a learning curve, and the Panthers took some lumps in their early years under Brown. After three seasons, Brown’s record was just 23-39.

It started to click in year No. 4, however, as Stryker finished the season with a 13-9 overall record, the program’s first winning season under Brown. The next season in 2002-03, the Panthers broke out with a 19-4 campaign, and a year after that, they went 18-7 and advanced all the way to a Division IV regional final.

The program was off to the races from there, adding lines to the team’s championship banners seemingly every year. After the three losing seasons which began Brown’s tenure, the Panthers had only two seasons below .500 for the next 19 years.

However, none of it would have happened, Brown said, without the girls and their families making sacrifices and buying into the program. There were times, Brown remembers, when in different combinations of shootouts, camps or scrimmages, the team played upward of 30 games during the summer.

“This program didn’t get to be where it is just by going to open gyms and practices. That’s the smallest part of it,” he said. “There’s just a dedication from the parents and the kids that made this possible.”

Brown has long been revered by many in the northwest Ohio coaching scene, too, not only for his ability to consistently churn out competitive teams at one of the smallest schools in Ohio — Stryker’s graduating classes typically sit around 30 students — but also for the way he carries himself.

“Every year you think he’s graduating quite a bit, but the next year they’re very competitive,” Bryan girls basketball coach Todd Grosjean said. “So that’s a credit to him, his staff and the community for the program they’ve established there.

“Everybody respects him. He’s a pretty intense guy on the sidelines, but if you talk to him, he’s very helpful. If you need a film or discuss a scouting report on someone, he’s willing to share.”

For Tim Nicely, who’s served as coach of the girls programs at Fayette, Montpelier and Ayersville over the years, he’s always held wins against Brown in high regard, simply because of how much he respects him and his teams.

“If you walked in there and had a chance to beat Steve Brown, you know you had a pretty good game,” Nicely said. “He was a tough guy to beat. His teams were well-prepared, and his girls worked very, very hard for him. He’s had an awesome career, and it’s sad to see him leave, but I wish him all the best.”

No coach faced off with Brown as much as longtime Pettisville head man Jason Waldvogel, though. As a 1988 Stryker graduate, Waldvogel said he always admired Brown as he was growing up, and that respect only grew as the two formed a friendly coaching rivalry in the BBC.

“As we started out in our careers, we ended up having some competitive teams and they seemed like they matched up right away,” Waldvogel said. “That rivalry just got bigger and bigger every year, and it didn’t matter if the teams were down. When we played each other, it was always going to be a battle each and every night. It was always a fun battle and one of those things you look forward to.

“I always really respected Steve and the way he coaches. I know he really loves and cares about his kids. He’s one of the most intense people I know, and he probably helped instill some of that intensity in me. But at the end of the day, Steve would do anything to help you out.”

MORE THAN BASKETBALL

Make no mistake about it, all the winning the Panthers have done under Brown has been a big part of what’s made the program so special.

But for so many of the team’s alumni, it’s about more than that.

“It’s never been just about basketball,” said Andres, who hit a game-winning buzzer beater to send the Panthers to the regional final in 2004. “Yeah there were some big wins or some fun games, but really the times I remember most are getting yelled at.

“The energy (Coach Brown) puts into the program that makes such a big impact on everybody that’s played for him … it sticks with you. The fact that he sees so much potential in you that you don’t even see in yourself, that’s something that’s brought so much to this community.”

Brown often talks about the ways he was coached growing up, and about the ways his coaches impacted his life on and off the court. For him, that was always one of his biggest goals with his own program.

“I always told these kids, ‘I don’t care what time it is, what you’re doing, anything. I’ll be there. I’ll figure something out,’” Brown said. “It didn’t matter, and it still doesn’t matter. … We’ve never had a bad kid, and I think there’s good you can find in anybody. … At awards banquets, I’m usually a mess, because I get so emotional. People ask why, and I go, ‘Well, it’s because I love them.’”

The team also became an extension of Brown’s family. From the time Brown started dating his wife, Brenda, he’s always been coaching. For as long as the couple’s three children have been alive — which includes sons Taylor and Evan, and daughter Nicole, who played for her father from 2006-2010 — the family has always been along for the ride.

Over the years, members of the team have affectionately come to know Brenda as “Momma Brown,” and for so many team meals, parties, cookouts, road trips and other activities of the sort, Brenda has always been there, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s family,” she said. “You want them around you all the time, and it’s just a good feeling. … It was an amazing ride, but I don’t think it’s over quite yet. We’re not going to distance ourselves, and they know they’re always welcome.”

THE FUTURE

It’s a midseason game in early January, and the Panthers are welcoming the Tinora Rams into town. Already scuffling a bit to start the 2019-20 season, the Panthers have a unique challenge to deal with this evening.

Brown had surgery for a hernia that morning, and while still showing his devotion to the program by attending the game and sitting on the bench, in order to rest and recover, he isn’t able to coach with the same energy and intensity he’s known for. As a result, he’s deflecting most of the coaching responsibilities to Varner and Haines.

As the game wears on, it quickly becomes a grudge match, and after Stryker loses a few players to injury, Varner is forced to pull a few players up from junior varsity. Tinora proves to be a tough opponent, but by the time the final buzzer sounds, Stryker has eked out a 36-30 victory.

After the game, Varner insists there wasn’t much of a difference that night. After all, she spent four years playing under Brown and six more serving as an assistant, so their mindsets have intertwined over the years, she said.

Flash forward a few months later, and as Varner thinks about her impending head coaching responsibilities, with fellow alumni Haines and Andres as her assistants, she’s echoing similar sentiments.

“We’re three alumni, so what I keep telling people over and over again is maybe Coach Brown’s not coaching, but the mentality and the morals that he’s instilled in the Stryker Lady Panther basketball program is still going to be there,” Varner said. “Do we have different coaching styles? Everyone has different styles. … But we all have the same mindset and philosophy.”

The three will always have a ringing endorsement from Brown, who has already told them he’ll be the team’s No. 1 fan, while also offering whatever advice they might need.

“Just how honored I am to have these three taking over for me is mind blowing,” said Brown, choking back tears. “That’s pretty special that I could be here 20-plus years and have three former players take over. I couldn’t have written it any better.”

Stryker athletic director Kim Miller, who worked with Brown for years at Sauder Manufacturing, said it will be odd without him roaming the sidelines next season, but she has the utmost confidence in his replacements, ones she said were easy to choose.

“I don’t think they’re going to change much,” Miller said. “Everybody coaches differently, but I think they’re going to expect the same things that Coach Brown did, and I think they’ll work well together. ... It’s going to be a learning experience for them, just like it was for Coach Brown. But these girls are aggressive and they’re going to do whatever they need to do … so I think we’re going to be just fine, and it’s going to be fun to watch what they do.”

As next season inches closer, Brown admits it will be different for him. He jokes he might not know how to act in the stands, and there could be a time or two when he calls for a timeout or yells at a ref.

But like always, he’ll be right where he’s supposed to be.

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