(Sentinel Photo by Allen Hamil)
Gehlen Catholic boys basketball coach Mike Langel points directions to his team in a game this season. Langel is retiring from coaching after 18 seasons as the head coach of the Jays.
LE MARS — Following a 48-38 loss to No. 7 Remsen St. Mary’s in the Class 1A substate final, Mike Langel never thought about himself. After all in similar situations, Tom Skram never did.
Langel’s 18-year time as Gehlen Catholic’s boys basketball coach had ended. His actions were like those of his former Gehlen basketball coach (Skram), as he walked to console discouraged athletes who wanted nothing more to send their retiring coach to the 1A state basketball tournament.
“It wasn’t about me in that point of time,” said the 1978 Gehlen graduate who finished with a 277-141 career record.
“I had a lot of heartbroken kids in the locker room that needed to get talked to and needed some hugs. I think they wanted to get me to state more than themselves, quite honestly. They were heartbroken for themselves and their team, knowing they wanted to get there and it didn’t happen.”
Assistant coach Ryan Wiltgen said Langel did a “great job of not being too fired up” during the pregame talk. Senior guard Keaton Logan said he could tell Langel wanted a win just as bad as the players.
Then there was his coaching friend of 14 years, Remsen St. Mary’s co-head coach Scott Ruden, laughing during a pre-game conversation with Langel, who like himself, farms for a living.
“This is how good we get along,” said Ruden. “I was going to say it to him first. He told me first, ‘It has been a blast coaching against you these last few years.’ I said, ‘Boy, we have had some battles.’ He said, ‘Yes, we have had some battles.”’
(Sentinel Photo by Jerry Giese)
Gehlen Catholic boys basketball coach Mike Langel talks with Remsen St. Mary’s coach Scott Ruden prior to their substate game in Le Mars this season.
The substate battle
Gehlen trailed the majority of the game, but went on an 11-2 late third-quarter run triggered by Langel’s arguing of Logan’s offensive foul with a referee who didn’t signal a technical foul, which would have been the first of Langel’s varsity career.
It fired up the Jays, whose first five points came from 51.6 percent shooting Ryan Augustine, the first on a left-corner three, which was followed by his steal/layup combination. Then at the buzzer, all-time leading scorer Keaten Bonderson (1,913 points) swished a 42-footer for a 31-26 lead.
Gehlen held the Hawks to just four points in a 5-minute stretch that included the first 1 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter.
“When you prep for Mike, he always throws a little trick at you,” said Ruden. “The press caught us a little bit. We didn’t know if they’d use it against us. He loves to isolate your weak spots and take advantage of those.”
RSM trailed 33-28 before Jaxon Bunkers went hard to the hoop to launch a 20-3 run with 6:30 left. Threes from Landon Waldschmitt and Collin Homan along with combined 9-of-10 free throw shooting from Bunkers and Alex Schroeder in the final 72 seconds clinched the Hawks’ second victory in three games this season over the Jays.
A few Gehlen fans (including Mike’s wife Kelli) seeking to console athletes and coaches were in the hallway, witnessing, but not hearing the conversation between Langel, Wiltgen and assistant coaches Eric Kellen and Alec Langel. Then the head coach opened the locker room door.
“He said he was so proud of us, especially me and Bondo because we had been with him since our freshman year,” said Logan. “He was bringing up all the great memories he had. He said he enjoyed watching us. He enjoyed watching the journey.”
The coaching journey begins
Raised on the same farm where he currently lives, Langel described himself as a lifelong farmer. Not long after he married Kelli, they moved to the farm. His parents Don and Harriet moved to Le Mars and he continued to feed hogs and grow crops.
Never did he dream of becoming a high school basketball coach. Oh, he coached YMCA basketball and from 1998 to 2000, coached seventh and eighth grade Jays in the old Catholic School League, oldest son Tim among his first players. Sometimes, he coached against a former teammate, Luke Sauer, during those Gehlen Green/Gehlen Gold games.
A year older, Sauer offered Langel a varsity assistant coaching position beginning in the 2000-01 season. Then in the 2005-06 season, then-principal Jeff Alesch offered Langel the head job.
“That was a big decision in my life,” said Langel. “I said to Jeff I would do it for one year and that will give you time to find a different coach, someone who would take the program over. Every year, Jeff would come back to me and said, ‘You’re going to coach again next year, aren’t you?’”
Youngest son Robb was among the Jays on his dad’s first squad which finished 12-11. Coach Langel was guided by what he learned from Skram, who coached from 1974 to 1989.
Skram stressed man-to-man defense and transition offense, something which Langel followed. Like Skram, Langel was a player’s coach who also demanded and returned respect from athletes, someone who never put players down.
“He coached kind of the same, to be honest,” said Wiltgen, a 1989 Gehlen graduate who also played for Skram.
“They were both player-type coaches. The kids loved Tom and the kids loved Mike. Teams rallied around them. They basically believed in the kids, built the kids up, supported them.”
“He truly cares about the players and treats them like they are his sons,” said Kellen. “He teaches them about basketball, but also about life. He listens to everybody around him on the coaching staff. He has the big shoes. He has to make the big decisions. We feed him what we think and he takes it home.”
Langel guided 12 of his first 13 teams to winning records. Still, there were challenges.
One of those came off the court. A rainy October, 2011 led him and many northwest Iowa farmers to begin a late harvest.
Now, Langel credited his four kids, including daughters Jill and Melissa, for stepping up with farm chores when their dad was at practice or games.
However, this late harvest was unusual for a family which farmed 1,500 acres and raised 7,000 hogs.
“I didn’t have harvest done [in time],” he said. “I had 6 [a.m.] practices that year because I knew I couldn’t quit in the middle of the day to practice. I told the players, ‘I’m sorry, but this is how it has to be.’ Then I could go home and work the fields.”
Langel began harvest on Oct. 30. He finished on Dec. 8, a Holy Day.
“It was really a late season,” he said. “I remember we drove through town with our combines at midnight, in a snowstorm.”
Langel said two-thirds of the Jays liked the 6 a.m. practices. By the way, that squad went 11-0 in the War Eagle Conference (21-3 overall), winning the first of five conference championships under Langel’s leadership.
A look at Mike Langel’s list of accomplishments as Gehlen Catholic’s head boys basketball coach
A 277-141 career record.
Winning final season records in 16 of 18 years as head coach.
Twenty or more wins in five seasons.
Five War Eagle Conference championships.
Three undefeated WEC seasons (11-0 in 2011-12, 10-0 in 2013-14, 10-0 in 2020-21)
Three Class 1A substate championship game appearances.
A 24-0 beginning to the 2013-14 season before a Class 1A substate loss to West Lyon.
His final season (20-6 in 2022-23) included a school-record 586 points for Keaten Bonderson, Gehlen Catholic’s career leader with 1,913 points.
Spalding comes to Gehlen
Two years later, Langel was among the Gehlen coaches who welcomed athletes from the former Spalding Catholic High School to the program.
“They went from competitors to teammates,” said Langel. “I thought the parents were really good that year. They were behind us 100 percent. Granville people walked in, sat down and sat with our parents and got to know each other. I think in that season, it helped the merger be successful.”
A whopping six Jays scored over 200 points, paced by Colton Kneip (289), a 60 percent shooter who averaged 12.1 points and 9.8 rebounds. Others over 200 included Solomon Freking (235), Blake Wiltgen (233), Alex Kellen (232) and brand-new Jays Jared Steffes (224) and Ryan Stoll (214).
The result? A 24-1 season and a third straight WEC title (10-0). Gehlen, which shot 49.2 percent from the field, reached the 1A substate finals, falling 52-46 to eventual state champion West Lyon.
Other substate teams
Langel was asked how Gehlen went from 7-15 in 2019-20 to 23-2 the following season. It was an injury-riddled season that was paced by a mere freshman in Bonderson (18.4 ppg). Carter DeRocher (15.7 ppg) was limited to 16 games because of injury while Zach Kraft, Ethan Peters and Jacob Nemmers were also sidelined.
A year later, the Jays went 10-0 in the WEC, paced by Bonderson (20.4 ppg) and DeRocher (20.2 ppg) while a healthy Kraft averaged 6.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. Prior to a 1A substate final against Remsen St. Mary’s, they had won 23 of 24 games, but the Hawks avenged two regular-season losses with a 41-33 defensive slugfest win.
Langel calls each of the three substate games (all played at Le Mars Community Competition Gym) memorable and adds that there were other memorable regular-season contests. A year later, after a 15-8 season, he invited his three assistant coaches to the farm for grilled hamburgers.
‘We kind of felt it coming’
“We kind of felt it coming,” said Kellen. “Just by … I don’t know. We could see something was tugging on him, by the more weight he was putting on our shoulders and how he believes in us. We knew it was close.”
Langel announced that the 2022-23 season would be his last. Kelli had retired from Primebank, where she had worked 45 years. Her husband, who was also planning to retire from farming, was going to go out with the upcoming seniors. Six of the 10 seniors would see significant varsity minutes – Bonderson (22.5 ppg), Drake DeRocher (10.8 ppg), Logan (8.7 ppg), Augustine (7.6), Connor Kraft (6.3) and Zayne Weiland (2.1 ppg).
The assistant coaches kept the secret from the players. Prior to watching a Big East Conference game at Omaha between Creighton and Xavier, Logan said Langel had paced in the hotel lobby.
“Everyone wondered what was going on,” said Logan. “Then he called everyone over. It was hard for him to form a sentence because he had a passion for the game for so long. He said ‘This is going to be my last year. This is the team I want to go out with.’ It was a sad experience, but we were really happy for him as well.”
Word eventually leaked out around the WEC. South O’Brien’s 17th-year head coach, Kiley Yates, introduced Langel prior to a late-January game at Paullina.
“He thanked me for being a coach and the competition we had together,” said Langel. “He said, ‘Mike was the longest in the War Eagle and that makes me the longest now that he is stepping down.’ It was pretty cool. He wished us luck as we moved forward.”
Fast forward nearly a month later. Mike and Kelli were holding each other as they walked out of the LCHS gym lobby.
“Well Kel, what do we do next,” he asked.
The day after the loss, Kelli was thrilled about a trip to Rosemary Beach, Florida, to see relatives who invited them, figuring the season was over and neither had a thing to do. Three days later, they took off.
Yes, Mike said, his high school sweetheart was involved in the retirement decision.
“I wouldn’t have done it without her, for sure,” he said. “She loved to be a coach’s wife. Out of 18 years, I think she only missed one game. Every game, she made treats for the players after the game, cookies, brownies. Every Saturday morning when we had practice, she made fresh cinnamon rolls. This decision was as hard for Kelli as it was for me.”
They’ll spend time with their 11 grandchildren, nine of whom attend Gehlen. Mike, who plans to help his sons on the farm, also hopes to become a Creighton men’s basketball season ticket holder. He and his wife will still attend games.
Wiltgen was asked what he learned from Langel.
“Situation awareness,” he answered. “I watched how he handled situations, pressure situations, how he stayed calm in tough moments of a game. How to manage a game and how to manage a practice.”
(Sentinel Photo by Jerry Giese)
Gehlen Catholic head boys basketball coach Mike Langel and the Jays listen as 11-year assistant coach Ryan Wiltgen draws up a play on the sidelines in the first half of the second quarter in the Class 1A substate final against Remsen St. Mary’s.