ROCK FALLS – Rock Falls High School has a pair of new coaches, and both have Rock Falls in their blood.
The school board Wednesday hired Zach Sandrock to lead the boys basketball team and Chad Williamson to lead the wrestling program.
Williamson wrestled for the Rockets when current Rock Falls athletic director Rich Montgomery was coaching the program, and was an assistant coach under Derick Cox. His son, Dylan, will be a senior for the Rockets next year.
Williamson's tenure on the mat included winning the 1998 Class A state championship at 189 pounds.
"Chad's been around the program for years," Montgomery said. "When we hired Coach Cox, Chad was a candidate at that time for the head coaching job. … So Chad, I know he was disappointed I didn't name him the head coach then, but as the years have passed, I think he's realized that there's a lot more to coaching than people know, especially the head coaching position. He's done a nice job, and he's earned a shot to take over."
Sandrock, who graduated in 2011 from Rock Falls, didn't get a chance to win any state titles on the court in a Rockets uniform, but he saw one. The year after Williamson's state championship, Sandrock was 6 years old and sitting on his dad's shoulders when he got to see the Rockets beat Gibault 45-43 in Peoria to claim the Class A boys basketball state title.
"I've been following Rock Falls since I can remember," he said. "I've been going to games, followed the state championship team all the way to state, and from then on I wanted to play basketball."
Sandrock has been an assistant coach at Dixon the past three seasons, coaching the junior varsity and serving as a varsity assistant under Nick Oraham and Chris Harmann.
His return to Rock Falls marks his first foray into being a varsity head coach.
"Coaching under [Harmann] I learned a bunch, and I was really proud to coach under him, but this opportunity was great, and it's what I wanted," Sandrock said.
Sandrock is the second boys basketball coach in the Big Northern Conference to be hired this offseason having prior experience as an assistant coach at another Big Northern school. Oregon head coach Nathan Green, hired in April, had previously been an assistant coach at Rockford Lutheran.
"I ran scout teams and have done scouting and watched film through the conference the last 3 years, so it definitely gives me a good idea of what style of play all these schools have, as well as the players and personnel they have," Sandrock said. "I do believe it will help me. There's still a lot of work ahead to put together what we want to do at Rock Falls, but I think it does help in that way."
Sandrock hopes to instill a defensive-minded system at Rock Falls.
"I believe firmly that defense, if you're having an off-night on offense, defense can save you," he said. "We are going to be very defensive-oriented and get to the ball and make the other team make some bad decisions and capitalize on that."
Sandrock steps into the shoes left by Brad Bickett, who stepped down following the 2019-20 season, his eighth at Rock Falls, to become the athletic director at Bureau Valley.
"He's a great coach, and I'm very excited to follow in his footsteps," Sandrock said. "I'm going to have to bring my own style, because it's impossible to coach with anyone else's style, but he has left a culture and left a good basketball program."
During Sandrock's time at Dixon, Montgomery got to see firsthand a coach who was able to put a disciplined, well-prepared Dukes team on the floor.
"We have a nice junior class, and I think Zach's inheriting a good base," Montgomery said. "The only thing I told him, like I tell any new coach, is 'If it's in good shape, tweak it, don't go and make wholesale changes.' They want to make it their programs, but you have to be careful on how fast you move on that. I'm sure Zach's aware of that. He knows he's walking into some high expectations."
Williamson was alongside Cox during his predecessor's entire tenure with the Rockets, but taking the controls is something he said he's always wanted to do.
"I've always been a Rocket, and it's always something I've wanted to do," he said. "Rich has been a big role model for me ever since I was in high school and he was my coach."
Cox coached the Rockets for 9 years before being hired in March as the athletic director at Prophetstown.
"Over 9 years of us being together, we got synced up pretty well together," Williamson said. "There's some things that he did that I would have liked to have done differently, but there's a lot of things I did that he wanted to do differently. Things will continue to be the same, but I'm going to put my own little spin on some things too."
"In our interviews, [Williamson] had some good ideas and some things he wants to try to do," Montgomery said.
Cox oversaw four regional titles during his tenure at Rock Falls, with trips to the dual state tournament in Bloomington in 2015, 2016 and 2017. The Rockets had an individual state champion in Niles Ager in 2017 and runners-up in Adam Meenen in 2020 and Shawn Skinner in 2013.
Williamson wants his Rockets teams to always be respected and to show respect.
"You've got to show respect to earn respect," he said. "I want to do that, but I also want then to get into the attitude that it doesn't matter if the score's 14-0 or 6-6, they've got to have that tough mentality and that killer instinct, to always strive to get better."
For both coaches, gyms and schools are closed, and there is no certainty they will be able to meet with their players over the summer.
"We're going to do our best to, first build relationships and get to know the athletes and them get to know me and our different styles," Sandrock said. "That's our No. 1 priority, building those relationships so that when we do get into the gym, we're all trusting and working with each other."
For Williamson at least, having a son on the team and being friends with many of the parents of his wrestlers should help ease the transition even if they can't get in the gym.
"We're going to have to rely on some of these kids to get on their friends and do some things," Williamson said. "That's kind of the conversation I had with my son before I took the job, was that he would have a little more responsibility. You've got to make due with what we've got, and hopefully I can count on him and some of the other kids to step up when the IHSA is not allowing us [coaches] to do it."