When the Columbus Christian girls basketball team capped a terrific two-year run with the school’s first Indiana Christian Schools Tournament championship Feb. 28, it was the crowning achievement of head coach Ron Bridgewater.
It also was one of his last.
Bridgewater, who led the Crusaders to a 31-4 record this past season and a 72-36 record since starting up the program again in 2011, has announced that he will give up his coaching position to spend more time concentrating on his ministry at East Columbus Christian Church.
Bridgewater, 46, talked with The Republic about his road to Columbus Christian and how it became a power in girls basketball.
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Q. What was the first basketball team you ever coached?
A. “I had the elementary girls team at Brush Creek in Jennings County. It was the fifth-sixth grade team. I had moved to North Vernon from Cincinnati and I was a youth minister at First Christian Church. I thought coaching would be a great way to reach and influence kids.”
Q. Were you a basketball player in school?
A. “I played my freshman year of high school in Brazil and my senior year at Cincinnati Christian (college) when I was 27. I was a late bloomer. I really didn’t have any intention of going to college, but after being out of high school five years, I packed my bags and went to Bible school. Before that I had tried a lot of things that I thought was my direction.”
Q. What do you remember about coaching that first season?
A. “I didn’t have much patience. I was pretty young, and I was coaching a group of elementary girls. I didn’t have much talent, and I remember it being frustrating to coach at that level. I was expecting them to do more than they could. And they were girls, that was the team that was available. The next year they had an opening for the boys program, and I did that a couple of years. I learned more about the game and more about coaching.”
Q. So when did you arrive in Columbus?
A. “I had coached the seventh-grade team at Jennings County Middle School for a couple of years and then did one season as the freshman girls coach and a varsity girls assistant at Jennings County High School. In 1995 I moved to Columbus and became the senior minister at East Columbus Christian. Nick (his son who currently is a Columbus Christian senior) was a third-grader when we moved and that first year I put together an AAU team with Nick and Chris Noblitt. Then I called Columbus Christian, and they had an opening for an elementary boys team coach. It was fifth and sixth grades, but if you didn’t have enough, they would let fourth graders play, too. It was a blast because I got to coach my own kid. We had a pretty good team and won 21 games that year and went to the elementary state final four. We lost on a last second shot. I can still see that shot. Then when Nick was in sixth grade, we won the elementary (Christian Schools) state title. Chris (Noblitt) and Austin Straub were part of that team.”
Q. What do you remember most about that time?
A. “I was spending a lot of time with kids from great families. It was like a big basketball family, a kind of extension of the school family. We were winning a lot, too. We were 66-15 in those three years in elementary school. But more than that, the kids had a lot of fun. If it’s not fun, what’s the point? I’ve seen dads and coaches berate players and act like it is life or death. You see those kids aren’t having fun. I tried to make it a situation where we worked hard, but we were having fun doing it.”
Q. So were you learning a lot about coaching at that level?
A. “After elementary, I coached two years of junior high boys basketball and was an assistant coach with Kendall Wildey. I learned so much about basketball from Kendall, more than I had learned in all the other years combined. Kendall is such an excellent coach. He just knows the game.”
Q. Even though Nick was headed into high school varsity basketball, you decided to take the girls varsity coaching job. Why?
A. “I was going to Columbus Christian several days after school and I would watch the boys playing basketball in the gym, having a good time. There were girls in the gym with the boys, shooting and having fun, but they didn’t have an opportunity to play on a team. The bottom line is that we wanted to give those girls, who were all classmates with my son, an opportunity to play. I talked to (boys coach and athletics director) Kevin Roth and he said, ‘Yeah, we have some old uniforms.’ The girls hated those uniforms, but the next year Kevin got them new uniforms.”
Q. Was it tough at the start?
A. “Initially, I didn’t know the amount of time it would take. I wanted to build a program, and I wanted to put these girls together and have them win games. I don’t think all the girls understood that the first year. They just wanted to have fun. We were not very good. We won eight and lost nine that season, but the teams we beat must not have been very good because we were struggling. We weren’t fundamentally sound and most of the girls hadn’t played before. I honestly felt I had gone back to my Brush Creek days. These girls hadn’t been to any basketball camps, and they hadn’t learned any fundamentals.”
Q. Was it much better the second year?
A. “I felt we were improving. Our core of players from the first season was four freshmen and an eighth grader, who was Tori Robinson. I thought there was potential there and the girls were so young that we had time to get better. We were 12-14 and we played tougher competition. I remember we played Owen Valley, which was a 3A team, and we drove there in a snowstorm. We got pummeled 71-16 and people were wondering what we were doing. The only part our girls liked was stopping to get pizza on the way home. But I thought that was an important game because I wanted the girls to see what they could become. We already were having some success against lesser teams and we won a nice, little tournament in Southport. It was such a good feeling to get that trophy. You know, I’ve always felt that, talented or not, every team I’ve had has played hard for me. It goes back to that Vince Lombardi quote, ‘You can’t get anything unless you give everything.’ The girls bought into that.”
Q. Did things change drastically when junior guards Macy Wingham and Kayleigh Reed, who immediately became starters and stars, transferred into the school?
A. “Obviously, the addition of a couple of players changed a lot. Knowing the type of players I was getting, I knew we would win a lot more games. We set a goal to win 20 games, and maybe get out of our regional. With Kayleigh and Macy, that was a realistic goal. One thing I have noticed about coaching, no matter what level, if you have good guards, you have a chance at winning. It changed everything. It allowed our other players to play positions where they were more comfortable. We went 21-9 so we reached one goal, but we lost in the regional. Then we went to Tennessee and won (the National Association of Christian Athletes tournament). It was huge. Kendall (Wildey) was there with us and he talked to the girls. He said, ‘Tomorrow, you will wake up as a different person.’ Everyone started thinking the same thing, that the next year, we were going to win state. They were not going to be denied. That was the goal right then. We believed.”
Q. Were you shocked that you had won in Dayton, Tennessee?
A. “It was kind of crazy. We had just got bounced from our state tournament in the regional, so we went down to Tennessee not expecting anything. That whole week, we had practiced. We hadn’t done any strategy.”
Q. Was it an easy transition going from a developing program to a power, almost overnight?
A. “There were some territorial issues. Mostly, the players already here were excited about the additions, but we still had growing pains. As a guy, I don’t understand the whole female thought process. You know boys can have a fight in the hallway before practice starts, but when the ball is tipped off, they go play ball. Girls, not so much. For a good part of the season, I was clueless that there were any problems at all until it was brought to my attention. It was more off the court stuff. I called in the players one at a time, and we talked about it. ‘This is what I am hearing, is this true?’ We worked through it.”
Q. Did the NACA tournament win changed how you approached the 2014-15 season?
A. “It definitely changed what I was doing. The players were pretty serious about winning state so I knew I had to do more work. I was learning more offenses and difference defenses. When people would throw junk defenses at you, I wanted to know what you could do. Going into the season, we had three goals … win 30 games, and we did that. Win a state championship, and we did that. Repeat as national champion, and we didn’t do that. But if we were allowed to remain in Division V, we would have done that, too.”
Q. What do you take away most from your four years as head coach at Columbus Christian?
A. “That I was able to have an impact on the kids’ lives for a few years. The trophies are nice, but trophies will rust and will fade with time. Relationships are the things that matter, for eternity. I feel like I have had an impact on these kids. I feel good about it. The whole time here has been such a blessing. I started off with elementary kids on a tile floor. To reach the level that this team has reached has been amazing. We feel that no matter who is on our schedule, we have a chance to win.”
Q. So why walk away?
A. “It’s bittersweet. It’s hard to leave the girls who are coming back, but for me, it’s right. This is the time to do it, timing is everything. My wife, Stacey, and son, Garrett (13), have been the ones who have taken a back seat to this for the last four years. They have sacrificed a lot. Stacey has been very patient and very good about all this. Now it’s time for me to sit back and watch Garrett more and be more involved in his basketball career. I am going to have more time for Stacey, more time for Garrett and more time for my ministry. The church has been very supportive, but the bottom line is that even my ministry has had to take back seat at times, and I can’t do that any more. I never set out to do this for the long haul. I wanted to see that group of freshmen that I started with through.”
Q. What would you like people to know as you give up your post?
A. “People have no idea about the amount of time, money and effort that Kevin (Roth) has put into building the athletic program at Columbus Christian. You won’t find a person who loves those kids as much as Kevin. He has put so much blood, sweat and tears into this. This girls program does not happen without Kevin’s blessing. I also want to say that I don’t even get the girls program started without Todd Noblitt. The first two years he helped coach the girls and he still is very instrumental in everything we do.”