Back in the game: Austin grad returns to hoops to coach Iowa girls team to a state run

Published 5:06 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Sometimes when you leave the game you love, it has a way of coming back to you.

Zach Wessels, who graduated from Austin High School in 2013, was settling into his job as a physical therapist in Sibley, Iowa while commuting back and forth to his home in Sioux Falls when a simple twist of fate brought him back into basketball. 

Wessels led the Packers to three state tournament appearances and two second place finishes in the Class AAA state basketball tournament. He went on to play point guard for Division II University of Sioux Falls for four years, but he was ready to move on with his life when the Sibley-Ochdeydan girls basketball head coaching job opened up.

Email newsletter signup

It wasn’t long before Wessels had community members approaching him about applying for the job and after giving it some thought, he applied for and received the job. The next thing he knew, the former Packer with one year of assistant coaching experience was the head coach of a girls basketball program that had high expectations.

Sibley-Ochdeydan head coach Zach Wessels talks strategy with the Generals this past season. Photo provided

“We had a lot of pressure,” Wessels said. “It was sort of like my junior year in Austin and the community was very confident in thinking that we could make it to state and have a run. It was kind of the same thing in Sibley-Ochdeydan this year.”

The Generals, who finished with a record of 22-4 overall, had six experienced seniors who made Wessels’ head coaching debut a little bit easier and they did not disappoint. The team advanced all the way to the Iowa Class 2A girls basketball semifinals, where they lost to Dike-New Hartford 61-56. DNH went on to win the state championship by beating Central Lyon 64-49 to win its third straight championship.

Wessels learned many things throughout the season, but mostly he learned a new love for the game that he has always cherished.

“This was probably one of my most fun seasons in basketball that I’ve ever been a part of as a player or coach. I learned a lot about how to coach girls and that was something new. The connections made were the most fun part of it,” Wessels said. “I’ve learned that the best way to coach is to be your true self and lead by example. Choose your words the right way and stay positive. I feel like the coaches who coach by fear or negativity, they’re not doing anything for their kids. That’s not the way to get your kids to respect you or play with you. I think (former AHS head coach Kris) Fadness did a great job with that and I still have a relationship with him, where we keep in touch.”

Wessels had very little coaching experience before this past school year, but the way he played the game as a floor leader translates well into leadership. Despite being one of the best players on the floor in most of his high school games, Wessels was always a willing passer and always one to lift his teammates up with words of encouragement. 

Wessels finished his basketball career as AHS’s all-time leading scorer. He also was an All-State football player during his senior season with the Packers.

Despite all of that success, Wessels remains extremely humble and he isn’t even sure if he will be back to coach again. His hours as a physical therapist are demanding and he also commutes with a two-hour round trip each day.

“We had some really fun, smart girls who love basketball. It was a real blessing. This team was locked with talent and they made it easy on me,” Wessels said. “I never planned on coaching. As a physical therapist, it’s difficult with my schedule. There was so much to do this year, and it was very time consuming. I never thought I would get this much out of it. We’ll see how the future goes with trying to raise a family and doing other certain things as well.”

While he embraced the run to the state tournament, Wessels also enjoyed meeting a lot of great people throughout the year. He had a great coaching staff and he had a team he loved to coach. 

Wessels also won the community over, just like he did with the Packers.

“What I learned throughout the years is that if you win, people show up. In my freshman year at Austin, the gym wasn’t very packed but as we started to win, more community showed up,” Wessels said. “It was kind of the same here. It seemed like the whole community came down to Des Moines and watched us play. It definitely gave me flashbacks to Austin, when we went to Williams Arena and Target Center.”