GREENCASTLE – On the 55-minute drive from the southside of Indianapolis, Kellie Kirkhoff thought about first impressions. When she arrived at the McAnally Center in Greencastle, how would she greet her new team?
“Do I come in with a smile on my face?” Kirkhoff thought. “That stuff matters. Those girls will notice those things.”
She did smile, at least through introductions. But when it was time to take the court for practice, the smile faded and the uptempo practice began. Kirkhoff, who at 23 is the youngest girls basketball coach in the state, stepped in and ran through drills when necessary. Greencastle (Indiana) High School’s players watched her every move and listened to every word.
“I’m excited because all we’ve had before is men for coaches,” said Allison Stevens, one of two seniors back from a 14-8 season. “I’m excited to switch it up and get a little bit of a female perspective.”
Kirkhoff is not all that much older than her players at Greencastle. But she has been preparing for this role for a long time. When she was 4 years old, she watched her grandfather, Bob Kirkhoff, coach the Roncalli girls basketball team. She watched her father, Jeff, coach the middle school boys teams at St. Barnabas for years. She would be off to the side at practice, shooting baskets or sometimes getting in the drills.
“Basketball is what I’ve done forever,” she said. “That’s what I love. It’s what my family loves.”
Her first head coaching job was, um, unofficial. She was a junior in high school and helping her dad coach a 7th grade Roncalli girls team in the Indy Girls Hoops League. Or at least she thought she was helping. Until her dad turned to her and said, “You are the head coach. You’re calling the shots.”
“He threw me in the water and I learned how to swim on my own, I guess,” Kirkhoff said, smiling at the memory. “But I learned a lot by doing it.”
Jeff Kirkhoff might be a tad biased, but calls his daughter “a natural” at coaching. It makes sense, though, considering her background. At Roncalli (Indianapolis), she played for highly-respected coaches Sara Riedeman as a freshman and sophomore, April McDivitt-Schilling as a junior and Stan Benge as a senior. During that time, her grandfather, who was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, came back to the staff at Roncalli as an assistant.
“Kellie’s experience with her grandfather was as an older man,” Jeff said of his father, who won 323 games and eight sectional titles at Roncalli from 1981 to 2001. “He wasn’t always grandpa. When I was a kid, he was intense. I don’t know that he ever really turned up the heat on Kellie, but that’s his granddaughter.”
There is little Bob Kirkhoff enjoyed more than watching his granddaughter play basketball. After scoring more than 1,000 points and earning all-state honors by the Indiana Basketball Coaches Association as a senior in 2014, she ran the show as point guard for coach Katie Gearlds at Marian University for four seasons. Kirkhoff, a two-time third-team NAIA All-American, has her name all over the Marion record books, including ranking second in career scoring with 1,622 points.
“We know she knows what she’s doing,” Greencastle senior Madison Rogers said. “We’ve heard a lot of good things about her and she seems to know the game really well. She’ll be a really good asset for our program moving forward, not just this year but years after.”
If there was one thing Bob Kirkhoff enjoyed more than watching Kellie play, it was watching her coach. Last fall, she did her student teaching at Speedway and coached the girls junior varsity team. At the first timeout of the first game, Kellie realized everyone was looking at her.
“All of a sudden it occurs to me that all the girls are looking at me to say something,” she said. “All those years I’d been playing, I was listening in the huddle. It was like, ‘What do I say?’ I had nothing.”
That was the last time that happened. Kirkhoff learned a lot about organization and leading a varsity team from Speedway coach Joe Smith, who had led Covenant Christian to the Class 2A state finals in 2016. She could also count on postgame chats with her grandfather, who would always greet her with a smile on his face and two key points.
“Missed free throws and foul trouble,” Kirkhoff said. “Those were his two things. He would tell me that when I was a player, too. ‘If you get in foul trouble, you can’t be on the court. You want to be on the court, right?’”
Bob Kirkhoff’s presence will be the one thing missing when Greencastle opens the season in November. He died in February at age 84.
“Nobody enjoyed watching her coach more than my father,” Jeff Kirkhoff said. “He absolutely loved it.”
Jeff will join Kellie on the sidelines as her assistant at Greencastle. Kellie’s mother and Jeff’s wife, Tina, jokes that they are twins. “We are a lot alike,” Jeff said.
Jeff said he is there to help his daughter in whatever area she may need. A voice of wisdom in a close game or a shoulder to lean on after a close loss. But even though she may be the youngest coach in the state, Jeff anticipates his best move may be to stay out of his daughter’s way. He has already noticed how Kellie can get the attention of her team with relative ease.
“I don’t know where coaching will take her,” Jeff said. “But I think she’s pretty good at it. And I think she’ll show that. She’s a great coach – a natural.”