By Jeremy Hoeck
Joining a program looking to turn a corner is one kind of challenge. Than there’s the situation facing Nick Mayer.
How about joining a team that went 24-1 and won a state championship?
Mayer, 32, is leaving his position as head girls’ basketball coach at Vermillion High School to take the same position at Harrisburg, which will join the Class AA ranks and join the Eastern South Dakota Conference (ESD) next season.
“It’s a very unique challenge, that’s for sure,” Mayer said Thursday. “And now being moved up to the highest level in our state, it’ll be fun.”
Harrisburg, though, rise to the highest level of its class last season under former coach Marcus Leloux. The Tigers were unbeaten against Class A competition and rolled to the state title — all in their first-ever state tournament appearance.
Mayer, who went 41-48 in four seasons as Vermillion head coach after being promoted from assistant in 2009, said family logistics attracted him to the position in Harrisburg. His wife commutes to and from her job in Sioux Falls.
“I knew there was going to be an opening there for a while, but I didn’t want to think about it much during our season,” said Mayer, who has a young daughter. “But it’s one of those great opportunities for our family.”
A Vermillion native and 2004 University of South Dakota graduate, Mayer has spent his entire teaching and coaching career in that district. He finished his eighth year as a teacher this spring and spent seven seasons in all with the Vermillion girls’ basketball program.
He was an assistant under former coach Jamie Parish for three seasons, including Vermillion’s Class A title run in 2007. Mayer assumed the head coaching position in 2009 and later led the Tanagers to the 2012 state tournament — finishing eighth.
His team last season went 10-11 and lost in the first round of the district tournament.
“I’m sad to leave Vermillion, because that’s been our home for a long time,” Mayer said. “I get choked up even talking about it. I’ve been privileged to work with such great people and great kids.”
On the issue of Vermillion’s next coach, Mayer said he has two “fantastic” assistants, in J.J. Heyden (a 2007 Mount Marty College graduate) and Mallory Schmidt.
“Each of them could do a great job, if that’s the route the district goes,” Mayer said. “Ultimately, I know they’ll make a good decision and hire the right person.”
In his next stop, Mayer will inherit a Harrisburg program that will join Yankton, Brandon Valley, Sioux Falls Lincoln and Sioux Falls Washington in District 2AA next season.
“It’ll be interesting to come to Yankton for a game instead of a team camp, plus it’ll be nice to play in the Summit,” Mayer said.
Travel, of course, will present a new challenge for Mayer. While in Vermillion, the longest road trip for his teams was to Madison, where as he will now travel to places like Pierre and Aberdeen in the ESD.
The prospect of matching up with Sioux Falls schools is something he said he is “anxious” for, specifically when it comes to maintaining Harrisburg’s traditionally strong girls’ basketball tradition.
“Basketball is basketball at any level; I really believe that,” Mayer said. “You have to do the little things right to be successful, and that’s what we’ll preach to those kids.”
Harrisburg graduated only two seniors (Morgan Krier and Brittany Blakney) and will return All-State forwards Morgan Beaner and Hailey Halling. Whomever takes the court in 2013-14 will likely be a familiar face, Mayer said.
“We’ve played Harrisburg for a number of years, and I feel like I know those kids, and they know kind of what my philosophy is,” he said. “I really want to hit the ground running.”
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