DECORAH — He politely asked that this story be about the boys, and it is.
It’s kids like Matthew Franzen and Patrick Bockman, Keaton Solberg and Andrew Magner who have Decorah’s boys’ basketball team sitting with an 11-3 record as it goes into its game Friday night against New Hampton.
That’s more victories than last season already, potentially more wins than the Vikings have had in a season in the last decade. They aren’t out of the league race, either, as they seek to win the Northeast Iowa Conference for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
“We just built on last season,” said Franzen, a senior guard who is Decorah’s top scorer. “That’s what we’ve been focusing on. Get better each game, as a group, as a whole team, as a program. We’ve really gelled together with a lot of experience coming back from last year.”
And one new guy named Raef LaFrentz.
The former Iowa Mr. Basketball from MFL MarMac, Kansas Jayhawk All-American and 11-year NBA player is a volunteer assistant under head coach Jonathan Carlson. He’s at every practice and game.
“I have watched the program and kind of thought I could give a little bit to it,” LaFrentz said. “It has gone well. We’ve got a great group of seniors, a great group of varsity players. They’ve done a good job of following through with what we’ve asked them to do.”
LaFrentz, 43, moved back to Iowa after his playing days and has been in Decorah with his wife, Joie, and their four sons (ages 12, 9, 7 and 3) for seven years. He has been involved with Decorah’s youth basketball program and decided this year to help with the high school program on a regular basis.
He sits on the bench with Carlson and fellow assistants Gunnar Rollins, Jerry Robinson, Jim Heick and Corey Schuman during games and talks to the team at times during timeouts. Tuesday night against Oelwein, you saw him pull out a coaches dry-erase board to diagram and explain something to a player.
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“Why this year? Because it’s a good group,” LaFrentz said. “I kind of spoke to Jon (about) whether it was this year, next year, or the year after, I want to be more involved. I have stuff to give, as far as knowledge and experience. You know, the high school level is a really fun level to work with because you can see such rapid improvement with kids from sophomore to junior year, or junior to senior year.
“And it’s kind of a good way to be involved with the community and the families in the community. I’ve got four boys coming up myself, and I just want the program to be as exciting as it can be.”
Carlson was all onboard with LaFrentz helping out. He is in his eighth season as head coach of the Vikings and was an assistant at the school prior to that.
He is fully invested in this program.
“It’s been good,” Carlson said. “Obviously, you always look for different resources and various things. Having him around, he helped a couple of summers ago with the group ... You can tell kids something, but they seem to listen a little more when it’s coming from a former NBA player.”
“We’re all thankful,” said Bockman, a senior guard. “He’s been a big help this season. I feel like he’s one of the main reasons we’re having this success.”
LaFrentz has been retired since after the 2007-08 season, so most of the kids he’s helping coach don’t have much memory of seeing him play. That doesn’t mean they weren’t intimidated by his presence at first.
“I was a little nervous when I first met him,” said senior forward Logan Halverson. “But once I got to know him, I think we bonded pretty well. He’s a great person, I love him as a coach. Just overall a really nice dude.”
“He knows his stuff, without a doubt,” said Magner, a senior forward. “But the greatest thing is he’s just another coach to us. At first, I was a little bit scared of him, I’m not going to lie. But we have really built a relationship. He has come in and almost changed the culture.”
That’s LaFrentz’s intent. Everyone’s intent.
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“That’s the idea,” LaFrentz said. “The more success you have, the more involved the communiity becomes. Eventually this year, next year, five years down the road, 10 years down the road, we have a really good product. For me personally, this is my first year of involvement, so I look at it as the start. That’s for me personally. I know Jon’s been doing it a long time.”
All of these guys envision this year’s team being the building block for a championship program. Decorah was 9-13 last season, 11-11 the season before that.
Fourteen wins in 2012-13 have been the most in the last 15 years. Decorah has only made it to the state tournament twice: in 1972 and 1979.
“I think we have just hoped to be the most successful Decorah team in recent memory,” said senior forward Solberg. “The past 20 years have been pretty dry, as far as playoff success for our program. We’re really trying to pave the way for a new basketball culture here at Decorah. I think we’re doing a great job, especially with some of the crowds we’ve drawn this season. We just need to keep plugging away.”
“Decorah has been a strong school traditionally in football,” LaFrentz said. “A strong wrestling school, a strong baseball school. Basketball has been good at times, but this has been a very good Decorah basketball team. They’ve been attentive to our words, what we’ve asked, and they’ve seen a pretty solid result. We’ve had some ups and downs, but, for the most part, they have played hard and done what we’ve asked.”
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