ELNORA — So many sports teams say they are a family, but the North Daviess Lady Cougars take that to a whole new level.
The Class A No. 12 Cougars (16-3) face the winner of Tuesday’s Barr-Reeve-Loogootee game in Friday night’s sectional semifinals at Jack Butcher Arena. It could be the final weekend of their high school basketball careers for four seniors — Meghan Knepp, Sabra Smith, Abby Hollis and Maggie Swartzentruber. Whenever the Cougars season ends, it will be the end of an era for four seniors who are as close as sisters and a coach who just feels blessed to be a part of the family.
Ron Knepp has been involved with North Daviess basketball for parts of three decades. If you believe the legend around Southwestern Indiana, he’s the first player to ever dunk at the Cougar Den. Knepp, a humble basketball junkie, just laughs and cautions anyone talking about the so-called dunk, “Don’t believe everything you hear.” This in essence is everything Knepp is about. He’s having the time of his life coaching a team he’s been around for much longer than the seniors’ four-year high school careers.
Knepp graduated from North Daviess in 1987 and quickly earned an Accounting degree from Oakland City University in 1990. He began to help out with the North Daviess boys basketball program but, Ron and his wife, Jennifer, started a family with two daughters and he took a step back from coaching the freshman team. Knepp joined the staff of Roger Carrithers and in his first season as an assistant the Cougars defeated Barr-Reeve to win the sectional championship. After the 2009 season, Knepp took over as head coach and began the slow climb back to respectability.
In Carrithers’ last three years with the Cougars, North Daviess complied a record of 32-33, but Knepp would have no such luck. In his first two seasons leading the program, the Cougars won just nine games, while losing 33. At that time, North Daviess didn’t have many seniors. It showed on the court and Knepp wasn’t expecting the beginning of his head coaching career to be quite that tough. North Daviess was so young and had only two seniors at their disposal, one of which battled knee troubles.
“When you go through those first two years and I’m sure the kids were wanting to quit and I was probably wanting to quit too,” Knepp said. “It’s difficult and I tell coaches this that are playing young players — when you get to Christmas time in a season and you’re playing young players, they’ve been beat up mentally and physically. The players just don’t really know if this is all worth it and I’m sure coaches go through the same thing. You have a point where you’re thinking, ‘Man, this is frustrating, because you’re competitive and you want to win.’ I kept telling this senior group to stay focused on the big picture.”
That big picture may have seemed miles away, but in the 2011-12 season — the sophomore season for the four seniors — everything started to come together with two huge victories. The Cougars defeated Bloomfield 38-30 on Jan. 24, 2012 after losing 69-23 the season before. Less than a month later, the Cougars upset Loogootee in the sectional semifinals, 35-30. Their season ended the next night in the sectional final against Barr-Reeve, but the seeds of confidence were starting to bloom.
“We were not supposed to beat Bloomfield and we hadn’t beaten Bloomfield in several years,” Knepp said. “We picked up a win and did so, convincingly. We didn’t just win it at the end on a last second shot. We led the majority of the game. When we did that, those sophomores figured out that we can play and we followed that up by beating Loogootee in the sectional. Loogootee had beaten us by 29 in the regular season in November. We came in with a game plan and a renewed confidence. I told (North Daviess boys coach) Brent Dalrymple, ‘We’re getting this experience a year early.’ From that point on we have believed we could win any game we played.”
While the Cougars’s offense has continued to improve with each game over the past two seasons, the defense is one thing that has never wavered. North Daviess has allowed 29.8 points per game, which is second in the state. North Daviess’ defensive prowess has always been pretty simple to Meghan Knepp, as least according to her father. Knepp recounted one conversation about how the early days helped the Cougars strengthen their defensive play.
“Dad we should be good at defense because we turned the ball over so much as freshman that is all we did the entire game is play defense,” Meghan said.
It was as if a light bulb turned on and the Cougars haven’t looked back since. Knepp is sure he’s not doing anything different, but the players are grasping the game much better. Over the past two seasons, the Cougars have won 32 games. It’s no coincidence that as the four seniors got better on the court, the team itself began to have more success and that dynamic meant more than just basketball games for Ron Knepp and his daughter, Meghan. Knepp says up front that coaching his daughter is not easy, but it’s so rewarding.
“I am harder on her than I am anyone,” Knepp said. “The thing we do that has worked extremely well is we leave it on the floor. There are times when she’s frustrated with me and I become dad, but most times she’s able to treat me as coach. When she comes home from practice, if she wants to talk about it she’ll bring it up and then I’ll talk, but if she doesn’t want to talk about it, then I won’t bring it up. There has to be a father-daughter relationship and that’s special. To be able to spend as much time with my child as much as I get, I’m very blessed to be able to do that. I spend more time with them than most parents do, because I have their attention for three hours after school every day. To do that with your daughter, that’s just special. I tell people, I am very fortunate, because I get to be her coach, but I also get to be her dad.”
One of the biggest reasons the father-daughter dynamic has worked in the coach-player relationship as been the unbelievable support from Jennifer, the matriarch of the Knepp household.
“A lot of people see Meghan and I out on the floor but what they do not get to see is the amazing woman behind it all,” Knepp said. “Jennifer is an awesome wife and a tremendous mother. When things do not go well she has to deal with me and her daughter, which takes a lot of patience and tender loving care. I cannot say enough about how blessed Meghan and I are to have her in our lives taking care of us. I do not have to worry about anything on game days. Several girls come over to the house after school, and when there are too many to fit in Meghan’s car she goes out to school and picks up the extras. The girls come over to eat and Jennifer gives Meghan her game day braids in her hair. Jennifer normally feeds five or six team members, what they call Thanksgiving dinner, before every game.”
Probably the most memorable game from a strictly individual performance was in last year’s sectional loss to Barr-Reeve, 52-50 at Kavanaugh Kourt. Meghan and Sabra Smith combined for 10 3-pointers and 46 points. Knepp admitted that if he had one regret it would be that often times in games, he’s too focused on the entire team and what is happening on the next play instead of just watching his daughter.
“I don’t get enough time to enjoy the ride,” Knepp said. “In the Barr-Reeve game last year, Meghan and Sabra were just having an incredible night. I would have loved to have been sitting in the stands to enjoy the show.”
The relationship with Meghan and her close friends has spanned much of the last 18 years for Knepp. The four seniors plus 2013 graduate Larynda Keith — North Daviess’ all-time assists leader — formed a group of close friends that has gone from tee ball to varsity basketball. The relationship of Meghan and her friends as it related to Knepp throughout his life has made all the success on the basketball court even more enjoyable. It’s the end of an era, but that’s not such a bad thing.
“Meghan would have a birthday party and those kids were here at my house,” Knepp said. “They would be here for slumber parties and when they played tee ball, they were either on Meghan’s team or playing against her. They all just grew up together and it’s tough knowing that this chapter is coming to a close. As a coach and as a parent, I’m really looking forward to the next chapter for these kids. You learn a lot in sports — it prepares you for life in general. When you lose the way we lost early on, it builds up something inside of you and then you start feeling the success from the hard work and you’ve earned it. I’m really looking forward to the next chapter for these kids. Very sad that this one would close, but I think these kids are going to be special.”