There are a lot of familiar faces around the Rock Falls boys basketball team this season, but one newcomer is going to make an impact: head coach Brad Bickett.
The former Bureau Valley coach, who went 290-143 in 15 seasons and led the Storm to three straight third-place finishes at the Class A state tournament (2000-02), has taken the reins for the Rockets.
After a 2-year hiatus from coaching, Bickett – who owns a 356-209 career record in 20 seasons with Buda Western (4 years), Western Wyanet (1) and BV – has come back from his time away from the sideline with a renewed energy and vigor for the profession he was born for.
"The last 2 years, on those Friday, Saturday, Tuesday nights, there's been sort of an empty feeling," said Bickett, a former all-stater who helped lead the Ohio Bulldogs to a runner-up finish at the 1986 Class A state tournament. "We went and watched a lot of games, but it's just not the same as being on the bench. The chance to be around these kids, teach them about basketball and about life, was too much to pass up.
"It's been a lot of fun so far, and a nice new challenge for me – and I like challenges."
The biggest challenge has been implementing his own style and scheme on an already established program. Unlike at BV, when Bickett was the head coach from the school's inception and built things from the ground up, he's coming into a school which has its own rich basketball tradition.
That means tweaking things and making adjustments, not molding a shapeless piece of clay.
"This is a different animal, trying to change tempo and attitude instead of starting from scratch," Bickett said. "But the junior high coaches have been very receptive, and the coaching staff we have – guys with experience on the sideline and in this program – is a big part of why I'm back. It's just a lot of fun to be around those guys."
Rock Falls lost just three players to graduation from last year's squad, but they accounted for two of the top four scorers and two of the top three in rebounding, steals and blocks.
But the new system Bickett has brought in – his patented diamond press and an efficient-yet-explosive offense – has Rock Falls' veterans learning a new way to play the game.
"It's non-stop movement," senior point guard Alex Leaf said. "There are no dead points during practice; we use every possible minute of every 2-hour practice. The style is slightly different, more under control and taking care of the ball. We want to get up and down the court, but we want to do it in a way where we're not all over the place."
Both Leaf and senior shooting guard Jace Anderson say they love the new attitude and energy Bickett brings to the table. While the system may be new, they say it's been an easy adjustment because the longtime coach has been very upfront about what he expects from his players.
"We know what he wants from us," Leaf said. "Play hard, push ourselves and each other to get better, and give it all we've got every time we step on the court … and we definitely respect that."
The players also respect the way in which Bickett goes about things. While he does work them hard, a lot of the things he teaches aren't necessarily about basketball. Bickett's goal is to change attitude and work ethic, but in school and at home as well as on the hardwood.
"We're a lot more disciplined," said Anderson, who led the Rockets with 10.7 points per game last season, "and it's not just on the court."
"We feel if we can clean up some of those little things," Bickett said, "the basketball stuff will take care of itself."
It always helps a new coach to have strong credentials, and Bickett has that in spades. While the Rockets are too young to remember his run of state tournament trips at BV, let alone his playing days at Ohio, they're very aware of the past history of winning that Bickett brings to the table.
"Knowing that he had success in the past makes it really easy to buy into what he wants to do," Anderson said. "It really makes you want to push harder, because we know that same thing could happen for us if we work hard enough."
Rock Falls Rockets
Coach: Brad Bickett (1st year, 0-0)
2011: 12-15 (4-8 Big Northern West)
Advancement: Lost in 3A Dixon Regional semifinal 49-48 to Sterling
Key losses: Brett Chappell, G; Davontay Euell, F; Tyree White, F
Key returners: Jace Anderson, sr. G; Steven Armoska, sr. F; Alex Leaf, sr. PG
Opener: vs. Rock Falls, 7:30 Monday