Parkston girls basketball coach Rob Van Laecken, the all-time wins leader in South Dakota girls hoop history, has announced that he will retire from teaching and coaching at the end of this season. He currently has 593 victories and has led the Trojans to 10 state tournaments, with the highest finish a runner-up effort in 2011. He is something I wrote when he was getting ready to pass Fred Tibbetts as the state’s winningest girls coach in December of 2011:
When Rob Van Laecken arrived at Parkston High School in 1976, he had recently graduated from Dakota State University and was focused on becoming a football coach.
Girls basketball had just started as a sanctioned sport in South Dakota a year earlier, but the new industrial arts teacher was barely aware of it.
"To tell you truth," says Van Laecken, "I didn’t give girls basketball much thought."
But when Parkston’s head coaching job became available in 1977-78, Van Laecken saw a chance to run his own team and decided to give the girls game a shot.
Thirty-five years later, he’s still coaching the Trojans and making his mark on history.
Parkston’s 55-52 home victory over Hanson on Monday gave the 59-year-old Letcher native his 551st career victory, tying him with the late Fred Tibbetts as winningest coach in state high school girls history.
"As you get older, you look back and say, ‘How could a program stay successful for this long?’" says Van Laecken, who is 551-196 (.737) and can take over the top spot when the third-ranked Trojans play Friday at Chamberlain.
"A lot of it has to do with the school and the community, and the commitment of our kids. The tradition is there and it just sort of takes care of itself now."
If someone was going to catch the legendary Tibbetts, who died of colon cancer in 2008, it makes sense that Van Laecken pulled off the feat.
He was two years behind Tibbetts at Dakota State, and the two remained friends as Tibbetts built dynasties at Jefferson and Roosevelt, claiming 11 overall state titles while building a record of 551-101 (.845) over 29 seasons.
"Fred’s probably the greatest coach we’ve had," says Van Laecken, who also mentions Bob Winter and Ron Flynn as sideline leaders who inspired him. "He was very good to me, and he told me how he admired the program that we had, which meant a lot. It’s pretty humbling to even be in the same ballpark with Fred."
When Tibbetts was at Jefferson, he and Van Laecken went head-to-head quite often in regional play, with Parkston getting the upper hand just once. But the Trojans were always back for more the next year, ready to make another run.
Winter, the former Yankton coach whose girls teams won 319 games and eight state titles, said Van Laecken’s success is not just a product of longevity. The guy has done things the right way.
"One thing I’ve noticed is that he always treats people with respect, which is probably how he’s stayed in it this long," says Winter of Van Laecken, who frequently worked Winter’s basketball clinics in Yankton.
"He was big on stressing fundamentals, and he knew how to build a program. He works with kids in every grade, not just the older players. Those wins came from his hard work; nobody handed it to him."
The most notable omission on Van Laecken’s resume is the lack of a state title, though he has guided Class A Parkston to nine state tournaments. The Trojans’ highest finish was third in 1989.
"I used to think that was my whole driving force, but if we don’t get one it won’t be the end of the world," says Van Laecken. "We’ve had some pretty good teams that never got out of the region, but it would be nice for our kids to get (a state title). I want it for them more than myself."
This year’s Trojans are led by senior Marie Malloy, who was preceded by her sister, Maggie, now at the University of Sioux Falls. Maggie ranks No. 1 on the school’s all-time scoring list and Marie will likely finish right behind her, especially after scoring 40 points in Monday’s win.
That family progression is indicative of the stream of success Van Laecken’s teams have shown over the past 35 years. The Trojans have racked up 24 conference titles under their veteran coach while grooming 16 all-state players.
"That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of – that it was all done at one school," says Van Laecken. "We built this program, and it’s stayed a constant ever since."
Through it all, Van Laecken has done a pretty good job of staying under the radar, unlike the fiery and fast-talking Tibbetts. He’s hesitant to draw attention to the record (or himself) because he doesn’t want to interfere with this year’s team, but he knows it’s unavoidable.
"I’m just going to have to bite the bullet on this one," he says.
Still, he goes out of his way to praise the work of his assistants through the years, as well as the Parkston community and the school administration (Van Laecken serves as athletic director).
Most of all, he points to his players, who will try to give the coach the one thing his legacy lacks – that ever-elusive state championship.
If he gets it, many believe, he’ll call it a career. Of course, that moment is drawing near regardless of how far the Trojans advance.
"This could be the last year, but I’m not saying it is," says Van Laecken. "I think I’ll know when that time comes – and it’s getting closer, I’ll tell you that. But we still have a few more things to do."