Junior varsity basketball is the invisible bridge connecting the excitement of first-time high school players (freshmen) to the ultimate destination (varsity).

However, coaching JV isn’t for everyone.

Yet those who do it take tremendous pride in the role they play.

“I am very interested in becoming a head high school basketball coach. I took the JV job because I wanted to help build the program,” said E.J. Buford, 25, who works with third-year girls coach Kyle Shipp at Whiteland Community High School.

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“It really doesn’t matter whether it would be coaching girls or boys, because once you get to the varsity level the game is the same.”

Junior varsity coaches understand the likelihood that one or two of their best players will be called up to varsity during the course of a basketball season. And that their won-loss record may suffer as a result.

That’s life in the JV lane.

“I think I can lean back on my experience as a varsity coach and understand that as a JV coach you’re also a varsity assistant. You’re in it to do what’s best for the program,” said second-year Center Grove boys junior varsity coach Kevin Stuckmeyer, who coached the Plymouth High School varsity for three seasons (2008-2011).

“If you have that right mindset, it’s about getting kids to improve and take that next step as basketball players.”

Whiteland boys junior varsity coach Jared Johnson concurs.

“I love it,” said Johnson, 39, a DePauw University product who is in his first season leading the Warriors’ junior varsity after previously serving as a varsity assistant for Whiteland coach Matt Wadsworth.

“The ultimate goal with JV is to develop players into what they can be at the varsity level. I look at it as a real challenge to get these kids ready.”

Why they do it

Reasons for coaching at the junior varsity level can be as diverse as the individuals doing it. Some aspire to build their resumes so they can one day take a varsity coaching position.

Others are motivated by the prospect of positively impacting young student-athletes through the discipline necessary to be part of a program for three or four months.

“You have to be passionate about it. I see the effect I have on the kids,” said Franklin girls junior varsity coach Ashley Jennings, a 2005 Franklin graduate who played for and now coaches with longtime Grizzly Cubs mentor Walt Raines.

“My feeling is that if I taught you something then I’ve won,” she said. “My aspirations have changed since I’ve had children, but I still love coaching.”

Jennings’ two children are 4 months and 2 — young enough for her to place any ideas she may have had about trying to scale the coaching ladder on a back burner, at least for the time being.

However, working alongside Raines, whose 329 career victories rank him 13th among active girls basketball coaches in Indiana, has been one of the best avenues Jennings could have explored.

“(Raines) cares more about his girls than the outside sees. I see the trust and compassion he has. Honestly, he trusted me from the get-go, and that could have made or broken my coaching career,” said Jennings, 27, who as Ashley Eads was a 5-foot-8 post player at Franklin.

“If he has ever not liked things that I have done, he’s blunt. He’s honest. But I’m that way, too. My coaching philosophy was shaped by Walt Raines.”

First-year Center Grove girls junior varsity basketball coach Katie Rice graduated from Westfield High School in 1997 with 12 varsity letters, having excelled in volleyball, basketball and softball.

Rice has coaching experience in all three but insists she’s perfectly fine where she’s at.

“I’ve been a head coach and have no aspirations to go back,” said Rice, 36, alluding to a season of coaching softball at a high school in Charlotte in 2006-07.

“Honestly, I don’t like the politics of it. I want to coach when it’s still fun for the girls. There’s a greater pressure on varsity players and varsity coaches. I’m completely fine with the idea of being an assistant coach.”

Rice’s JV squad is 11-1 entering tonight’s home game against North Central.

Long-term solutions

Then there are the lifers. Men like Greenwood boys JV coach Marshall Bratton, whose enjoyment working with Woodmen players in practice and game settings hasn’t waned.

“I really enjoy coaching. Being around the kids and teaching the game. You have to understand it with a clear understanding of what your job is. For me the most satisfying thing is seeing improvement from the beginning of the season to the end,” said Bratton, 55, who at different times has been freshman or JV coach since 1989.

“Part of the reason I’m still doing this is (Greenwood coach) Bruce (Hensley) and I are always on the same page. And the bottom line is it’s his program, and he always has the kids’ best interest in mind.”

It could be that Whiteland’s Johnson follows in Bratton’s footsteps. Johnson expresses no desire to pursue a head coach job.

“Where I’m at right now with the age of my own kids, I would say no. Right now I would say that’s not an aspiration,” said Johnson, father to daughters ages 14 and 4 and a son who’s 12.

“Now, if I was 23 or 24 again, absolutely.”

Looking ahead

Stuckmeyer posted a 31-38 record as head coach at Plymouth, his alma mater. It includes a Class 3A sectional title in 2010.

He enjoys working with first-year Trojans coach Zach Hahn; but, being young himself, Stuckmeyer might one day want to be a head coach again.

“I think it’s about finding the right job and the right fit where you could do it to the best of your ability and do it in a way that fits for you and the school system. Center Grove is a great school system, and I think coach Hahn does a tremendous job, especially here in his first year,” Stuckmeyer said. “I’ve always simply wanted to coach, and a part of that has been the goal to be a head coach. But JV still has a strong appeal.

“It’s a unique situation where you have kids who have a few more goals than maybe the traditional team. First, they’re trying to meet their team goals and compete and be successful at the JV level. But they also have the mindset of wanting to become varsity players.”

At a glance

Here is a look at the junior varsity basketball coaches in Johnson County:

Center Grove: Girls, Katie Rice; boys, Kevin Stuckmeyer

Edinburgh: Girls, Doug Weddle; boys, Dennis Smith

Franklin: Girls, Ashley Jennings; boys, Kevin Rounds

Greenwood: Girls, Jessica Darmelio; boys, Marshall Bratton

Greenwood Christian Academy: Girls, no JV team; boys, Curt Beaty

Indian Creek: Girls, Duane Unversaw; boys, Craig Hoskins

Whiteland: Girls, E.J. Buford; boys, Jared Johnson

Pull Quote

“It’s about getting kids to improve and take that next step as basketball players.”

Center Grove boys junior varsity coach Kevin Stuckmeyer

Mike Beas is a sports writer for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at mbeas@dailyjournal.net.