Irwin steps down after 21 years leading Le Mars Community

Wednesday, March 15, 2023
(Sentinel Photo by Allen Hamil) Le Mars Community boys basketball coach Dave Irwin calls a play to his team in a game this season. Irwin is retiring from coaching after 21 seasons as the head coach of the Bulldogs.

LE MARS — While it would be nice to end a career at the pinnacle, that rarely happens as many factors besides wins and losses go into the decision to step away from coaching.

Le Mars boys basketball coach Dave Irwin realized that when he made the decision to retire from coaching the Bulldogs after 21 years, doing so in the midst of what would be his only season with the Bulldogs to not result in a double digit amount of wins.

“I know it didn’t turn out the way anybody really wanted it to, but in all honesty, there’s only four coaches in the state that get to end on a win,” Irwin said of his final season. “Maybe I stayed a year too long, but I certainly feel like the guys I had this year, we made progress and we did a lot of good things, especially at the end.”

Several factors went into Irwin’s decision to step away from the basketball court at this time.

“I had contemplated it maybe a year ago then I had a little bit of a health scare back in September,” Irwin said. “My kids now are starting their own families and I’d just like to have some time to spend with my wife and spend go visiting my kids and just kind of get a little bit more normal so to speak.”

The news was met with some shock, but also plenty of well-wishes.

“With the announcement that it was going to be my last, I got way, way, way more recognition than what I certainly deserved,” Irwin said. “Any success that I had, obviously, number one, it’s because I had really good players. Number two, I had good people around me. I surrounded myself with guys that I could trust and we were on the same page most of the time.”

One of those individuals was Benji Kasel, an assistant coach throughout Irwin’s tenure.

“We worked together for 21 seasons. Coach Irwin is a man with great character and he cares deeply about the kids and he cares deeply about the program,” Kasel said. “He was always very good to me in giving me responsibility and giving me the ability to help the men grow in the game of basketball and grow as a coach. Just with those things it was easy to work for him.”

A player’s coach

Trent Hilbrands, one of eight different players to collect a total of 12 All-State honors while being coached by Irwin, said the personal relationships Irwin made with the players was special.

“That was one of the things I appreciated the most about him, he didn’t care where you were in the lineup. He treated everyone so well. If you ask any of his players, I think they’ll stand with that. They’re going to tell you he was super kind, super respectful to anyone,” Hilbrands said. “He wanted you to work hard and he got you to work your butt off. He just demanded a lot of his players and everyone respected him for it.”

Kasel said building relationships with the athletes helped to then mold them into basketball players on the court.

“He’s a player’s coach. He does a great job of building relationships with the players and he understands them,” Kasel said. “Then within that, he plays to the kids’ strengths. He allows kids to be the players that they’ve made themselves to be through their work and the time they’ve put into their game. He just did a great job of playing to the kids’ strengths and not trying to have them fit a certain mold that maybe they weren’t able to fit to. He just did a great job of building relationships with the kids. Most of the players that worked and played for him loved him because he had a great relationship with them.”

Irwin said one of the things he’s most proud of is developing a culture over the years with his players.

“There’s been so many special moments and even kids that didn’t have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes, I still have kids that come back or call or if I see them out they’ll say ‘Hey coach. How’s things going?’ Irwin said. “They still feel, and that’s probably what I’m most proud of, a lot of the kids that have graduated, moved on, started their lives, they still have a little bit of ownership in the program.”

Lots of memories

In his office, Irwin had team photos of every group he coached at Le Mars.

“Every single team, there’s 21 pictures up there, and each one provides some sort of special memory,” Irwin said. “Certainly you go back to the state tournament team in ’15.”

Hilbrands, a member of the 2015 state tournament team, recalls a memory from the when the team earned their ticket to state. The Bulldogs beat Spirit Lake 76-65 in the substate game held at MOC-Floyd Valley’s gym.

“One of the things that I remember from that story was that, so all year long if we’d go on a road game, we’d go talk to our parents after the game. He’d always be like, ‘Hurry up guys. I want to go home. Let’s go. Let’s get out of here,’” Hilbrands said. “That game he said, ‘If you guys win, we’ll be here as long as you want.’ We stayed in that gym after that substate game and were taking pictures and everything for like two hours after the game. I think as annoyed as he was throughout that whole process, he loved every second of it. That was one of the cool memories.”

Kasel also said that 2015 runner-up season was one of the top memories working with Irwin.

“Clearly, the run we had in 2015 was very memorable and was great for not only us as coaches, but the players and the program,” Kasel said. “The relationships we built with those guys in 2015, spending a week with them in Des Moines, you certainly get to know them a lot better.”

The fifth-seeded Bulldogs won their state quarterfinal round game by a 59-51 score over Dallas Center-Grimes. The team then upset top-seeded Williamsburg 64-57 in double overtime in the semifinal round. Le Mars finished as the Class 3A runner-up after a 46-38 loss to Dubuque Wahlert Catholic in the title game.

The state tournament trip in 2015 turned out to be the only one during Irwin’s time at Le Mars, despite winning at least 15 games in a season 11 times.

“I had a number of teams there that if it would have been set up the way it was this year on how the state tried to separate some teams, there was one year where three of the top five teams in 3A were in our substate. I had a couple teams that won 18 games and didn’t make a state tournament, had a 19 win season with the 2007 group and we didn’t make the state tournament,” Irwin said.

Hilbrands said it is disappointing that his coach only got to coach in one state tournament, but was glad to help him get there in 2015.

“Being the only team to go to state with Dave is kind of a crazy fact because he had so many good teams,” Hilbrands said. “But it’s also a pretty cool honor just because it was something he deserved more than anyone. Being able to help him achieve that goal was pretty cool.”

One final game

(Sentinel Photo by Allen Hamil) Former Bishop Heelan boys basketball coaches Andy Foster and Tom Betz present Dave Irwin a plaque made from wood from the old “Pit” gymnasium in Sioux City. Irwin coached his final game against Bishop Heelan, a familiar postseason nemesis for the Le Mars coach.

One of the reasons Le Mars only made one state appearance in 21 years with Irwin is having to face rival Bishop Heelan in the postseason. The Crusaders made six straight state tournament appearances from 2007 through 2012, winning three titles in that span. During that state tournament stretch, Heelan beat Le Mars in four of the six years, twice in district finals and twice more in substate games. That included two of the best teams of Irwin’s not to make state, the No. 6 ranked 2007 team which fell to No. 4 Heelan in the substate game for a final record of 19-5 and the 2011 team which lost to No. 2 Heelan in the substate game to finish 18-6.

As the Crusaders hosted a girls basketball regional game between the two schools two days before the boys teams were set to meet in the postseason this February, Heelan presented Irwin with a wooden plaque made from the old floor of the “Pit” gymnasium. Former Heelan coaches Andy Foster and Tom Betz presented Irwin the gift at half court.

Foster addressed Irwin and the crowd saying, “It’s been 21 years, we’ve laced them up a lot of times, not just here, but in The Pit. I remember one game in a snow storm, a 75-foot shot that didn’t count because there was a timeout called. Awesome matches. You’re one of the best. You did it right. Your game plans were awesome. You made it difficult night in and night out. These guys got to see one of the best do it.”

The plaque read, “Congratulations on 21 years as the leader of Le Mars Bulldog boys basketball. A great coach and an even better person. A piece of the “Pit” as a token of our appreciation.”

Le Mars had one final chance to give Irwin a win over the Crusaders in the postseason this year in the first round. The Bulldogs had split the regular season meetings including upsetting the then No. 6 ranked Heelan squad in Sioux City by a 62-49 score. The four-win Bulldogs gave it their all against the No. 10 ranked Crusaders, but fell in overtime by a 49-47 score in what would be Irwin’s final game.

“That game against Heelan, the last game that I’ll ever have coached, is certainly in the top 10 of all games I’ve ever coached. When you look at the total number of around 600, that’s something,” Irwin said. “I guess if I’m going to lose, it might as well be a game that we really competed in, we did all the right things, and I had a bunch of fun coaching.”

In the 20 of the 21 years Le Mars didn’t make it to state, Heelan ended the season for the Bulldogs on 10 occasions.

A lasting legacy

Irwin, who surpassed Eugene Carey for most coaching wins in school history last year, will finish his time at Le Mars with 304 victories. Including his time spent as a girls coach at Sioux City North and boys coach at Cherokee, he accumulated 355 wins.

“He understood the game of basketball and understood what it took to win,” said Kasel. “He had great principles and great things that he built the program around and he never wavered from them. In addition to that, he just did a great job of taking the kids that he had and making sure he molded them to fit the philosophy of the program and then just playing to their strengths and playing to their ability to execute in the game of basketball. We wish Coach Irwin the best of luck with his time away from coaching.”

Hilbrands, who is currently an assistant coach at Adel-DeSoto-Minburn, hopes to one day follow in the footsteps of his mentor as a head coach and said he’s learned a lot from him.

“I’m super proud, super happy for him that he’s earned the retirement, but I can’t help but feel for Le Mars basketball a little bit. They’re losing a great guy,” Hilbrands said.

Irwin will continue to teach at Le Mars and plans to continue coaching girls golf in the spring, but will enjoy time away from the basketball court in order to spend more time with family, including back home in his native Indiana.

“It’s been a part of my life since I can remember. I know it’s going to be difficult at times in the next year, but I didn’t want to be one of those individuals that somebody had to tell them when it was time,” Irwin said.

Irwin said he will try to watch a few games and may hop on a broadcast from time to time, something he did for Gehlen’s substate game against Remsen St. Mary’s, what turned out to be cross-town counterpart Mike Langel’s last game.

(Sentinel Photo by Jerry Giese) Le Mars boys basketball coach Dave Irwin looks over pregame notes as he hops on a radio broadcast of the substate game between Gehlen Catholic and Remsen St. Mary’s.

“I knew Mike from back when I was a feed salesman here in Le Mars. We’ve both been fortunate. He had the opportunity to coach some really, really good players, some really, really good teams. It says a lot about our community to allow a couple of guys to take on that kind of leadership role for that amount of time,” Irwin said.

While it may not have been an easy decision to step away from the game, Irwin feels it’s the right decision for this moment in time. He adds he feels fortunate to be given the opportunity to coach at Le Mars for so long.

“You’re bound to break some records when you have longevity. That’s where I just feel so fortunate that I was allowed to do this for so long. I feel fortunate that I was allowed to coach a number of really, really good players,” Irwin said. “I feel extremely, extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity, the time, the place, all of that stuff that I was allowed to do.”

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