In a sport in which the object of the game is to put the ball through a hoop that hangs 10 feet above the ground, Kelly McNiff encouraged her players to aim high.
Winning conference titles and stockpiling the regional championship plaques was all well and good. Yet, those who played for McNiff in De Pere High School’s girls basketball program had higher standards for themselves.
After helping her young charges fulfill their lofty objectives of winning sectional titles, advancing to the state tournament and reaching the pinnacle of the sport as state champions, McNiff is following suit after four years as head coach at De Pere.
She was officially hired on Friday to be an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
“We talked about having goals in life, and coaches and adults are no different than the students or athletes,” McNiff said. “College coaching is a goal of mine. The way things have fallen, it’s a good time to take advantage of the opportunity.”
McNiff, 35, informed her returning varsity players at De Pere last week that she would be leaving them to accept an offer at her college alma mater.
“It’s been very emotional,” McNiff said. “It’s bittersweet. I’ve realized the impact the girls have had on me as a family. So, it’s been very hard to say goodbye.”
In fact, McNiff had her sights on a fifth year as De Pere’s varsity head coach and trying to lead the Redbirds to a third straight Fox River Classic Conference title as recently as a few weeks ago.
Despite a huge graduation hit for last season’s team that went 24-1 with an unbeaten FRCC record, McNiff’s outlook for next winter was bolstered by the Redbirds’ high finish in a big summer tournament in late June.
“I was absolutely looking forward to (next season),” McNiff said. “We were playing really well in our summer league in Kimberly. I think it’s a very motivated group of kids.”
Plans eventually changed after McNiff received a phone call from UW-Oshkosh women’s basketball head coach Brad Fischer in early July. Fischer was calling to say he would have an opening on the coaching staff since his full-time assistant, Ana Wurtz, was leaving for a similar position at Winona (Minn.) State, her alma mater.
“It all just kind of went from there,” said McNiff, who compiled a 96-11 overall record and a 60-4 mark in the FRCC with three league titles at De Pere.
The Redbirds’ crowning achievement on her watch came in the 2011-12 season. They won their last 20 games, capped by a thrilling 60-57 outcome against Milwaukee King for the WIAA Division 1 state title in Madison. McNiff also was named the state’s coach of the year by The Associated Press.
McNiff spent some time weighing the pros and cons between staying as De Pere’s coach and leaving for the college ranks before saying yes to Fischer and UW-Oshkosh, where she was a three-year starting guard before graduating in 2000. McNiff also played two years of softball for the Titans.
“Until Brad called, I didn’t really see it coming,” McNiff said. “Everything kind of seemed (to come) together for a chance to coach at the next level. Whether it was a sign … I talk to the kids about setting goals all of the time, and I’d be almost a hypocrite if I have this goal and I don’t take advantage of this opportunity.”
McNiff had concerns about a reduction in her full-time position as a physical education teacher with the De Pere School District at the middle school going into next school year. She landed the teaching job last year after previously working in the Green Bay School District.
“It’s a sacrifice in salary,” McNiff said of leaving De Pere. “It’ll be less (money), but as any coach will tell you, we don’t do it for the money.”
That didn’t make her announcement to the De Pere players any easier, however.
“There wasn’t a whole lot said,” McNiff said. “There was some tears on both our parts. They’re a pretty smart group of kids, I think they get it and understand. A lot of them said, ‘Congrats!'”
McNiff had two coaching stints in De Pere’s girls program. She was the junior varsity coach for five years, left to become the varsity head coach at Green Bay Southwest for two seasons and then returned to succeed Dave Johnson at the helm of the Redbirds.
Her first season in 2009-10 resulted in a 26-2 record, a share of the FRCC title and a second-place finish in the Division 1 state tournament.
De Pere’s bid to play for a repeat state title last season — and in a new venue at nearby Resch Center in Ashwaubenon — ended with a 50-45 loss to Kimberly in a Division 1 sectional semifinal. That also snapped the Redbirds’ 44-game winning streak, which started in January 2012.
“It really has been a good run,” McNiff said. “I spent nine wonderful years at De Pere.”