By Taylor Grafft
The Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers basketball team has a history of success. They have district championships and countless school records to prove it.
It would be hard not to achieve success with Head Coach Barry Boren, who runs the program like a well-oiled machine. But if you ask Coach Boren why that success has been possible and so consistent through the years, he will tell you it doesn’t start with the coach.
“It’s these players and leaders that are so enjoyable to coach,” said Coach Boren. “That and I think that having my son Blake (Boren) alongside me has really benefitted the players and myself. Because Blake has been a player in my system, they can listen to someone that knows the system inside and out and can tell them what it’s like to play in it and have success in it. He’s also someone that can calm me down when I get frustrated during games and help me tell them exactly what we need to do to execute in a situation.”
Senior guard Tristan Heidelberg and Junior guard Callen Mikulencak are two other reasons why the Panthers are successful and continuing to get better and better with every game.
With the Panthers already well into their district schedule, it’s clear that this team has a different chemistry and work ethic than in previous years. That chemistry starts with the bond these players have not only formed with each other on the court and off the court, but with the relationships they have built with the coaching staff.
Both Heidelburg and Mikulencak consider Coach Barry Boren and assistant Coach Blake Boren to be like father figures and friends. The level of respect they have for the two coaches has allowed them to be better listeners and players. Because they are better listeners, they can understand exactly how the coaches want the team to execute in certain situations during the game.
But the benefits of their close relationships do not stop there. Coach Boren has a meeting with Heidelburg and Mikulencak each week so that they can relay the message to the younger players on the team. Coach Boren expects his captains to take the other players under their wing and teach them the messages and points he wants to execute in practice and during game time.
“Leadership is the biggest difference with this year’s team,” said Mikulencak. “That and the younger players really stepping up this year. If teams are guarding Tristan and me, we need those guys to step up and help out. It’s not just always scoring either. They can help out with passing or on defense or taking care of the ball.”
This isn’t the first year that Coach Boren has used the approach of meeting with his captains and wanting them to mentor the younger players. In fact, Heidelberg and Mikulencak were considered role players on last year’s team and were mentored by two players that were in the leadership roles that Heidelberg and Mikulencak have this season.
“When I went to the playoffs in my sophomore year, I saw (our two captains that season) teach me and really lay the foundation for me knowing that one day I could be a captain,” Heidelberg said. “They showed me how a good captain should lead.”
Coach Boren does not just randomly hand out those leadership roles. And they are not earned solely based on pure basketball skills. Each year before the season starts, Boren meets with each player on the team and interviews them one on one.
This process is an attempt to determine more about the players and about their personalities. Coach Boren believes that the interview process is not just helping him determine which players are fit for leadership roles, but it will also help them in life and outside of school once they graduate.
He describes the interview process as one that is very similar to what they will experience when they start applying for their first jobs. The process is also very unique because it allows the players to build upon their communication skills with adults, and not just any adults, but those who genuinely care about their students and want to help them build life skills.
For Heidelberg and Mikulencak, basketball has not always been the players’ first love.
For Heidelberg, it’s baseball. He’s been a baseball fan and player his whole life, but says that Coach Boren is the reason he found basketball. Heidelberg has stepped up his game this season because of an added confidence, he says. Coach Boren has taught him to not be afraid to shoot the ball more and to embrace that leadership and playmaker role that the team needs him to be.
Coach Boren found Heidelberg and Mikulencak and invited them to summer basketball camps when they were younger. It was at those camps that the relationships between the players and their coach started building the foundation for their success this year.
Mikulencak said his first love was football, but once Coach Boren talked him and his father into a summer basketball camp, it was there that Callen found his true calling. Callen has exceeded expectations this season and also improved his game. He’s found success by driving to the basket more and taking advantage of his superior strength and ball-handling ability. This has led to more free-throw attempts and an improved decision-making ability in clutch game situations.
Both players will need to continue to focus on their goal of another district championship and continue to embrace the fact that they are the leaders and players who the younger players are going to look up to when the game is on the line.