Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 5, 2014

Keisling hopes for a big party at end of week

Third-year coach has led Western girls to state finals.

By BRYAN GASKINS Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — The Keisling household is immersed in Hoosier Hysteria.

Chris Keisling is the coach of Western’s girls basketball team, which is preparing for its first state finals appearance on Saturday at Terre Haute. His son Austin is the leading scorer for the Class 2A No. 7-ranked Cass boys squad, which begins play in the Manchester Sectional tonight.

“There’s no doubt it’s a pretty exciting week,” Chris Keisling said. “Of course, I’m very focused on the girls with the state championship and Austin is focused on the Cass King boys and trying to win a sectional title and move on. My wife, Karen, is focused on both. ... It’s been a very, very successful year for the teams in our household. Certainly some fun times.”

The Keislings’ other son, Jon, is also busy with basketball. He is the JV boys coach and a varsity assistant at Western.

Chris Keisling is having a blast with Western’s girls team. The Panthers came within a game of the state finals in 2012 when Keisling was in his first season with the squad. The Panthers, with several holdovers from that squad, have made it to the big show this year.

“It’s a lot of fun knowing that I’ve been with a lot of these girls for three years,” Keisling said. “Certainly you develop a closeness with the kids as you experience practices and games and all that goes with a season. And they’re just such great kids on and off the floor. They’re fun to be around.”

Western (22-3) will face Evansville Mater Dei (26-1) in the Class 3A championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Keisling is a North Miami graduate and he teaches at Cass, but he was plenty familiar with Western when he took the girls job. His uncle Duane Keisling was Western’s boys coach when the Panthers thrilled their community by winning the 1983 Kokomo Sectional, their first sectional title. Further, Chris Keisling had a feel for Western after teaching at the school early in his professional career.

“I knew coming in that Western was a good situation,” he said. “Certainly as I got to know the players and was working with them, I knew we were going to have something special.”

Keisling’s first Western squad went 19-7 and won Class 3A sectional and regional titles — the deepest tournament run in program history at the time. The Panthers followed with a 19-5 record last season.

The Panthers have reached new heights this season with their first semistate title and a program-record 22 wins. Four of the starters have been with Keisling throughout his three seasons. The Panthers are 60-15 over that span.

Keisling owns a 145-62 record as a high school coach. He previously was the boys coach at Tri-County for three seasons in the early 1990s and the boys coach at Northfield for three seasons later in the ‘90s.

“Chris brings a lot of different coaching experiences to the table,” Western AD Josh Larsh said. “I think his biggest strength is he meshes well with the players. Obviously, there is a lot of talent [on Western’s squad], but there is something to be said for being able to coach and manage a lot of talent and handle high expectations. He and the team have been able to accomplish what no other team at Western has ever been able to do.”

Keisling’s time in the boys ranks came before class basketball. He led Tri-County to a sectional title in 1993 (at Twin Lakes) and Northfield to a sectional title in 1997 (at Huntington North).

Keisling recalled the excitement of leading Tri-County into a regional semifinal matchup vs. Lafayette Jeff at the Crawley Center.

“We had 250 kids in high school and we were playing Lafayette Jeff, which was close to 2,500,” he recalled with a chuckle. “We almost got them toward the end. We had a 3 to tie with about a minute to, then we had to foul and the point spread ended up being around 10.”

Keisling said the transition to coaching a girls team after previously coaching boys teams proved easier than expected.

“I wondered how it’d be coaching girls in terms of my temperament,” he said. “Girls are just like boys in a lot of ways — they’re competitors, they’re athletes, they work hard, they want to win and they’re determined. Having raised [two daughters], there is certainly a difference between boys and girls, but the competitive fire is no different. Sometimes the way you work with girls and communicate with girls is just a little different.”

Keisling’s basketball passion runs deep. His mother, Linda, graduated from Kokomo High School in the magical year of 1961, when Kokomo’s boys team won the state championship. His father, Dale, is a 1960 Northwestern graduate.

“I’ve been pretty immersed in Howard County basketball and all the history that goes with that,” Keisling said.

Now, Keisling’s squad is adding to that history.