Clark, Wildcats pull together special first year

Contributed photo: New Bloomfield head coach Tyler Clark recognizes the Wildcats’ fans with a raised index finger while his players celebrate with the championship plaque after No. 5 seed New Bloomfield turned back No. 2 Silex 58-52 for the District 5 title on March 5 at Louisiana High School. Clark, in his first year with the Wildcats, will direct New Bloomfield in its first Final Four appearance in 16 years this afternoon against Crane at the Hearnes Center.

Contributed photo: New Bloomfield head coach Tyler Clark recognizes the Wildcats’ fans with a raised index finger while his players celebrate with the championship plaque after No. 5 seed New Bloomfield turned back No. 2 Silex 58-52 for the District 5 title on March 5 at Louisiana High School. Clark, in his first year with the Wildcats, will direct New Bloomfield in its first Final Four appearance in 16 years this afternoon against Crane at the Hearnes Center.

— Here’s how New Bloomfield senior forward Daniel Berry remembers his first encounter with head coach Tyler Clark last summer.

“So when I came in in the middle of the summer, he opened up with a pretty generic joke that kind of caught me off-guard,” Berry said. “It was like the Geico (insurance) commercials and he said he had two things to tell us: one was about practice and the other was that he just saved some money on his car insurance.”

Interesting way to break the ice.

“It just told us who he was and made us all laugh and a lot more laid back with him,” senior guard Aaron Bedsworth said with a smile.

The joke must have been generic since Clark doesn’t even recall cracking it.

“They’ve brought that up before, but I don’t remember that,” Clark said. “But you know from day one, I’ve tried to be myself and not anyone else.

“Because kids know if you’re showing your true colors or not, and I’ve tried to do that.

Clark has had about as an eventful a first year coaching at a school as one can map out. The bumps in the road — and an 8-16 regular season — most certainly would not have been plotted out, but the current stop is — without a doubt — where the Wildcats hoped to be at the beginning of the season.

In the Class 2 Final Four and two wins away from a state championship. New Bloomfield (13-16) faces Crane (25-5) in the semifinals at 5 this afternoon at the University of Missouri’s Hearnes Center in Columbia.

“It’s been crazy this year,” Bedsworth said. “It was up and down and finally came together in time for us to make a run.”

• • • • •

There were quite a few pluses for Clark when he decided to make the move to New Bloomfield this past summer. Just one year into a head coaching stint at South Shelby High School in Shelbina, the Mizzou graduate had a fondness for mid-Missouri.

Clark’s wife “loves small towns” as he put it, and he loved teaching English, a subject he’s certified in and would have the chance to do at New Bloomfield.

But the upside for Clark, really, were all the on-court opportunities: he could coach junior high ball on Thursday nights while having more time to himself since the high school boys’ and girls’ teams play on different nights.

“I’m a coach. ... That’s in my blood,” Clark said. “I eat, sleep and drink basketball; you can ask my wife.”

Clark sold the school on his passion but, it seemed, some of his players weren’t quite ready to take the leap with him. It was nothing personal against Clark, though.

“The first time I met him, I actually wasn’t planning on playing basketball this season,” Berry said. “I was a big fan of Coach Gilmore, so when he left it was a heartbreaker.”

Tim Glimore led the Wildcats to a 15-12 record in 2009-2010, which ended in a loss in the District 5 title game. A few months later, Gilmore accepted an offer to coach the girls’ team at his alma mater, Southern Boone County High School in Ashland.

“I had mixed emotions,” Bedsworth said. “I was upset because he was such a good coach and taught me so many things.”

For Berry, the thought of playing for someone other than Gilmore could have been a tall task to tackle. And Clark wasn’t going to push him one way or the other.

“Kids are emotional at times about different things and I don’t try to talk them into playing, but I tell them to play if they want,” Clark said. “And when the emotions from a thing like the coach leaving die down, you have to give them time and let them make the best decision for them.”

• • • • •

Eventually, Berry came around to the idea of playing for Clark. But the coach and players still faced the obstacle of getting used to one another.

There’s Clark, who is quite particular about his system.

“I have a formula that I believe works and I want the kids to do that,” Clark said. “I tend to be a little bit more serious than this group of kids, so as the season has gone on, we’ve gotten on the same page.”

It was a season that included a 2-7 stretch in which Berry was relegated to the sideline due to an ankle injury. The usually offensive-minded Wildcats found their defensive identity in time to rip off five straight playoff wins to get to this point, the school’s first Final Four appearance in 16 years.

“We’re appreciative of the opportunity and we feel pretty blessed,” Clark said. “I’ve only been a head coach for two years and I never went to the Final Four as a player or assistant, and neither have these guys.”

“I don’t think we’ve grasped the enormity of it yet, but I think we will someday soon.”

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