By SCOTT JACKSON Courier sports writer
---- — HUTCHINSON, Kan. — Nathan Courtney has several stories he could tell about his time on the sidelines at the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball National Tournament.
Hopefully, he’ll have plenty more to talk about in the future. His most recent trip, which should have his most memorable, instead left the first-time national tournament head coach searching for answers.
“My team just came out and played nervous. There was nothing I could do to stop it,” Courtney said. “I burned up all my timeouts. I practically burned up all the other team’s timeouts. I just could not get them to calm down for most of the game.”
Courtney, a former Indian Hills assistant coach with two separate stints under then Warriors’ head coach Jeff Kidder at the national tournament, felt the head coaching pressures at Hutchinson for the first time last week. His Highland Cougars, which qualified as winners of Region 9, nearly overcame a slow start due to their nerves to hand their head coach a national tournament head coaching debut win.
Unfortunately, a 3-point shot by freshman sharp shooter Grant Prusator came up just short as the Cougars fell to eventual national champion Jones County 81-79. As it would turn out, the victory would be the first of many close wins for Jones County last week, capped off by an 87-77 win in the national title game over Courtney’s former school, Indian Hills, on Saturday.
For Courtney, however, his first national tournament game as head coach will go down as a classic case of what might have been.
“Being tough mentally is much more important than being tough physically in this environment. I don’t know who those guys wearing orange were in those first 25 minutes (last Tuesday), but it wasn’t the same team that worked so hard to be in the national tournament,” Courtney said. “It’s awful because we’d been playing so well to get here and, from the first possession, we didn’t play like ourselves.”
Courtney’s most recent season at Highland ended with an overall 27-8 record and the program’s first trip to the national tournament since 2009. In his third season as head coach of the Illinois school, Courtney talked about the experience of his first game as a head coach at the national tournament.
“I was just trying to stop the bleeding as best as I could,” Courtney said. “I was trying to get everyone on the same page and get everyone calmed down. Overall, there wasn’t too much that changed for me from my time here (as an assistant) at Indian Hills.”
One experience that was similar for Courtney was the disappointment of losing the first game on the bench at Hutchinson. Courtney has now experienced that both as a head coach and an assistant coach as the first of the two IHCC teams he was an assistant coach on came to the national tournament in 2007 only to lose out on a chance at the title in its very first game.
The impact of those two losses, however, are quite different according to Courtney.
“That loss in 2007 still haunts me because that (IHCC) team had a chance to win a national championship,” Courtney said. “We expected to win the whole thing on that Indian Hills team in 2007. Coming in with my team as the 22nd seed in a 24-team tournament, I would have been happy to make it past this first game.”
“That loss in 2007 was a real kick in the gut. It always hurts more when you feel like you’ve got a chance to cut down the nets at the end of the tournament.”
Courtney is hopeful that he will have many more chances to return to the national tournament with Highland, perhaps one day with a team good enough to cut down those nets on the final Saturday night of the season.
“I hope we can take that next step and bring in those caliber of players that can help us win a couple games at the national tournament,” Courtney said. “It’s just tough. I thought we could do some really good things with this year’s team. I’m proud of how tough my team fights, however. I hope to get better players next year and keep it rolling.”
And as Courtney found out last Tuesday when his Highland team was battling for its national tournament life in the game before the opening game for Indian Hills, several Warrior fans still pull for the former IHCC assistant coach. Cheers for the Cougars began to grow louder and louder in the second half as orange-clad fans from Illinois were joined by fans of the maroon-and-gold clad "Warrior Nation" that were arriving to the arena.
“I saw plenty of Indian Hills’ fans all week long who wished me good luck with my team in this tournament,” Courtney said. “When Grant started hitting 3-pointers in the second half, you could hear all the fans really starting to get behind us. It was great to experience.”
“I’ve got a lot of really good friends left in Ottumwa and at Indian Hills. I couldn’t be more grateful of all the support after all these years that I haven’t been there. Hopefully we’ll all see each other again back here next year.”
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