If you’ve been on vacation the last two weeks, you’ve arrived back to a landscape that’s radically changed in area sports. 

Brad Smith, the longtime Labette County boys basketball coach, retired. Aaron Keal, the longtime baseball coach at Labette, is transitioning to athletic director full-time. He’s left the job to his assistant Alex Coplon, who’s been on staff the previous five seasons.

Two tenured staples of the community are just the noteworthiest shifts in the paradigm since the arrival of the offseason. Parsons will have a new girls basketball coach, Pat Schibi, and a new volleyball coach, Brooke Hopper. Labette County softball coach Lori Green retired. Chetopa has a new football and boys basketball coach. Longtime Oswego girls basketball coach Jeff Schreppel stepped aside. The list goes on.

Coaching turnover is far from unfamiliar territory, but the departure of some of the community’s most entrenched presences has shook new fault lines into the region.

Smith’s retirement from both coaching and teaching was perhaps the most surprising. Internally at Labette County, many in the school district were shocked at the timing. Smith was undoubtedly in the twilight of his career, but most assumed he had five, upward of 10 years left to give.

But Smith leaves behind a stable foundation for whomever takes over to hit the ground running on. Smith was an icon for a reason — his devotion to his players and his students was unmatched. He never seemed to be in a bad mood, a sentiment USD 506 Superintendent John Wyrick shared when he talked about Smith’s decision to retire.

There aren’t any wounds for Smith’s replacement to heal. Whoever roams the Labette County sidelines in Smith’s place next winter will have not just a clean slate, but a slate designed specifically for them to inject energy and youth into the program.

Going north back to Parsons, the girls’ athletic program — tennis being the exception — is getting a facelift with Hopper and Schibi. But their predecessors, Jamie Wells and Mike Krull, helped revive the volleyball and girls basketball programs.

Parsons volleyball is sending two players to the college level — Hannah Spriggs to Labette and Breanna Bedore to Coffeyville. Those are the first two college volleyball recruits from Parsons since Auriana Jackson went to Labette in 2014. 

As for girls basketball, Krull earned wins over every SEK League team at least once in his four years and helped guide the Lady Vikings to back-to-back sub-state championship games. Schibi will face an uphill battle with an extremely youthful roster coupled with the graduation of Nena Taylor and her senior class, but the Lady Vikings have had tangible success over the past two seasons that should garner interest in the program.

Over at Labette, Keal’s transition to athletic director was a positive step for the department as a whole. With the modern challenges and workload a department in the Kansas Jayhawk Conference faces, it’s borderline unsustainable for a person to serve as both a head coach and athletic director. 

Keal touched on this when talking about his baseball retirement. He’d spend half his day plugging holes and dealing with the business of Labette athletics before attending to his baseball team. 

Now Labette gets people fully dedicated to each job. Keal will get more of an opportunity to serve his coaching staff on a full-time basis — which is at its healthiest point in years — while Coplon can inject undivided passion into a Labette baseball team hungry to climb the ladder in the KJCCC standings.

In his last years, Keal helped guide Labette through some tumultuous times. After the 2014-15 season, Labette saw a mass exodus of coaches — four of the school’s six head coaches vacated their positions for various reasons. Since then, Keal has had to hire six head coaches. 

Among those hires was women’s basketball head coach Mitch Rolls, who’s turned the Cardinals into a nationally ranked contender year in and year out. He also brought in Jerrod Stanford, who just led Labette men’s basketball to its first winning season since 2013. 

Jeff Vesta, the wrestling coach at Labette, has finished his first two seasons at Labette with multiple wrestlers attending the national tournament and had All-Americans in both his first two years.

Haley Miller, who’s entering her second year helming the volleyball program, has rehabbed local ties by recruiting local players and hiring Kaelyn Yeoman, an Oswego High School graduate, as her assistant coach. 

Now a coaching staff heading programs that are all trending upward will have an athletic director solely dedicated to service of the position.

Coaching turnover is often a sign of instability. Coaches leave when there’s turmoil and programs routinely suffer the detrimental effects.

But that’s not the case with the changing landscape this summer. Rather, the changing times serve as a celebration for what has been left behind and what lies on the road ahead. These programs can celebrate embracing the unknown future. It’s not the end of the story, but a new beginning.

A quick postscript — as notable programs all around the area face coaching changes, one team and one name remains ever omnipresent.

Labette County girls basketball coach Kristi Snider, also in the twilight of her illustrious coaching career, is still slated to return for the 2019-20 campaign. The SEK League’s most accomplished coach will defend yet another league title and will be the favorite to win it again. Onward the Lady Grizzlies go. 

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