WESTSIDE, Iowa — When practice started in November, a small, stubborn part of the Ar-We-Va girls clung to an irrational hope that Davey Kock would still be running the show.
“I felt like he'd come through that door over there and just be like, 'OK, start running,'” senior Lexie Vande Hoef said.
Added senior Brittany Stoelk: “It was almost like he was just on vacation or something. He'd be coming back.”
Of course, the team knew that wasn't the case. Kock, 53, died Sept. 25 of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare degenerative brain disorder characterized by sudden development of rapidly progressive neurological and neuromuscular symptoms.
A program that had made two straight state tournament appearances and returned four starters was without its leader. Larry Siebert, 66, was elevated to the head position. Jake Liekweg and Jim Anderson joined the staff as assistants. The Rockets are 14-2 and rated fifth in Class 1-A.
Siebert joked that Kock was in charge of the serious side of coaching: getting the girls to go to camps, scouting and game strategy. “I was in charge of fun,” he said.
Without Kock, Siebert expected the team's four seniors — starters Stoelk, Megan Ehlers, Vande Hoef and Amy Hinners — to show more leadership. The lone junior starter, Paige Danner, praised their willingness to do that.
“They've been talking a lot more this year,” she said. “Even before the games in our meetings, they are talking more, so they've really stepped up.”
After some rocky moments, everyone agrees that Ar-We-Va has hit its stride after the Christmas break. In a Jan. 18 win against Woodbine, Danner poured in 41 points — the most in the state this season regardless of class — on 19-of-23 shooting. The 5-foot-7 guard averages 19.3 points, fourth in 1-A.
In their next game at Boyer Valley, Danner scored 31 on 13-of-15 shooting. Then came Monday's meeting with West Harrison, and Danner scored three while the seniors took charge. Ehlers had 23, followed by Vande Hoef (21), Stoelk (16) and Hinners (14).
That performance showed Siebert that several Rockets are all capable of big production.
Ar-We-Va's new leader said he thinks of Kock often. More specifically, he thinks of his messages.
“He's always had a saying: 'If it is to be, it's up to you,'” he said. “That's what he always said after practice. And also: 'If you don't know what you're doing, go 100 percent.' That's a good analogy, when you think about it. The worst thing you can do is stop and watch.”
The Rockets aren't stopping — they are speeding up. Danner said Kock would be especially proud to see how hard the team is pushing the tempo in games and attacking the basket.
Vande Hoef said that in some ways, it's like Kock hasn't left.
“I can hear him on the court when I do something bad,” she said.
Kock's wife, Janine, still keeps the team's scorebook most nights, and the Rockets are grateful for her support. Janine Kock said the more than $13,000 in memorial contributions has gone to the Westside Community Endowed Fund, the Vail Swimming Pool Association, the Ar-We-Va Education Foundation and Hope Ministries in Des Moines, among other organizations. Thanks to a donation from her husband's company, Allied Producers Cooperative, the family will award an agricultural scholarship along with a sports-related scholarship already planned.
“He would be proud to be able to make a difference in so many ways,” Janine Kock said.
The Rockets feel their former leader's presence. They'll take the court for their next game Saturday with their “Coach K” logos sewn on their uniforms and his passion for the game in their hearts.
“He always wanted what was best for us, and he always wanted us to play our best,” Stoelk said. “That's what we do.”
Siebert was asked if he could pinpoint a moment this season that defined his team. Instead, he chose a moment in September when Kock was in failing health at a Carroll nursing home.
Siebert mentioned that perhaps some of the team members should go visit him soon, understanding that some wouldn't feel comfortable doing so.
“Brittany said, 'Can we go see him now?'” said Siebert, eyes welling. “All the kids went over there, they were there for a half-hour, 45 minutes. They had balloons, they hung stuff on the wall.
“They held his hand,” he said, pausing for a moment. “That's a defining moment right there.”
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