Coach Halitzka a near carbon copy of retired legend

Coach Halitzka a near carbon copy of retired legend

Over 20 years ago the Greenwood School District hired Clay Reeves to lead its varsity girls’ basketball program. Reeves came from tiny Greenland, then a Class 3A school in Northwest Arkansas, where his teams later won three state championships in 12 years. As hoped, he brought that winning formula to Greenwood, earning eight more state titles with the Lady Bulldogs over the past two decades. The retiring Reeves is tied for the most state championships (11) won by a head coach in Arkansas. He also won over 800 games.

The legendary Reeves stalked the sideline one final time this weekend as head coach of the West all-stars at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. The annual all-star contest between the best players from the East versus the West was played Friday afternoon. Serving as one of Reeves’ assistant coaches was the man who is replacing him at Greenwood, James Halitzka, and the two men share remarkably similar pasts.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Coach Halitzka, who spoke with the Dog Pound last week after holding his second off-season practice with his new team at H.B. Stewart Arena. The highly credentialed coach was quick to point out several points of comparison between himself and Coach Reeves.

“We both came here at the exact same age (38) and the same number of years into our career. We both came from 3A schools and had just won a state championship.” Both head coaches also tend to promote freshman if it helps the player and the program, both junior and senior high. “I’ve coached 15 years and I’ve promoted a minimum of 15 freshman. I started two freshman at Bergman this past season,” said Halitzka.

He has 430 career victories heading to Greenwood and is bringing his daughter with him. Jacey is 15 years old and started for her dad this past season as a freshman and was the team’s second leading scorer at 10 points per game. She has three years of eligibility remaining at Greenwood and should only get better. Jacey also spoke with the Dog Pound about the move to Greenwood, but not before her dad gave his permission, offering this humorous message via text, “Go for it, but I’m legally not liable for anything she might say.”

Likely an instant starter at Greenwood, the coach’s daughter joins returning starters, senior Izzy Smith and junior Kylah Pearcy. Those three will form a strong foundation for the defending 5A champs, giving them a trio of accomplished scorers. But the Lady Bulldogs also lost a lot with the graduation of senior starters Anna Trusty, Brooklyn Woolsey, and Carly Sexton, all three-time state champions.

The exuberant teenager, an only child who turns 16 in August, was understandably torn about the sudden move to Greenwood, leaving her Bergman teammates and the only school system she had ever known. “It was really hard,” she confessed. “My dad told me in the middle of a game [at team camp], and I’m an emotional person, so I’m trying not to cry [during] my game. But I talked to my friends and got over it.”

Asked about comparing Greenwood and Bergman, she said, “It’s definitely different. The school feels like I’m going to a college compared to Bergman. Right now, I’m still thinking of how I’m going to miss my little town where I knew everyone. But I’m excited.” Regarding her new teammates Jacey said, “They’ve been really good, if I didn’t know what to do or I didn’t understand, or I just needed someone to talk to.”

As for being a coach’s kid, “You kind of pick your poison sometimes,” she offered with a grin. “A lot of times he will look at me during games, and that’s a little hard. But at the same time, it’s helped me a lot. And sometimes I get my team in trouble in practice because he’ll get mad at me. [But] he’s a good dad.”

The coach later talked about his daughter and her role on last year’s championship team at Bergman. “She had a good year. She was our second leading scorer at about 10 points per game. She made 99 threes but couldn’t make one more to crack the 100 mark. She had a really great year as a freshman. She was on the all-state tournament team and made the Arkansas Basketball Coaches Association top five for Class 3A.”

Halitzka, whose name is of German origin, is married to wife, Tammera, an elementary teacher needing a new job herself after making the move to Greenwood. “Hopefully a job opens up here or in one of the [neighboring] schools,” said her husband. As for the move, the coach said his wife was fine with it. “She knew it was coming eventually. I had a goal of being at Greenwood. I wanted to be at a bigger school with a small-town environment, and you don’t get that at many 5A or 6A schools, but Greenwood was #1 on that list. Last year we almost moved down to Dierks (AR), but I backed out. I got bribed by the kids to stay. It’s hard to leave a group when you’ve been with them so long. So, we came back and won it all.”

Coach Halitzka just completed his 10th season at Bergman, a small community located near Harrison, Arkansas. The Lady Panthers won their second state title in three years after beating Salem 56-33 for the Class 3A crown in March. He was then named Class 3A Coach of the Year for the second time by the Arkansas Basketball Coaches Association. Bergman won its first state championship under Halitzka in 2022. The Lady Panthers finished that season with an impressive 43-0 record.

He spent his middle school, junior high, and high school years at Acorn (AR), and played basketball for the Tigers before going on to Arkansas Tech University. “I went to college and was a really good water boy,” he joked. He walked on with the Wonder Boys, but later was injured and spent a couple seasons as a team manager, allowing him to observe the coaching staff and team dynamics up close, helping prepare him for his future as a coach.

Graduating in 2008 with a degree in health and physical education, he later earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from Arkansas State University. But he always wanted to coach, he said. “I had a lot of good mentors. I had some good coaches in high school and got acquainted with some [other] good coaches right after high school. But I’ve always been driven to find hard things to accomplish and then get them done.”

Halitzka had a record of 315-88 at Bergman. Under his leadership, the Lady Panthers won five regional titles, had one regional runner-up finish, and reached the state’s final four in its classification four times. He also coached one year each at Emmet (AR) and Kennett (MO), and was at Weiner, Arkansas, for three years.

Always a head coach and never an assistant, the new GHS hire has been victimized by school consolidation more than once, forced to find another job despite having success everywhere he’s been. “At Weiner we played in the state finals on Saturday and that Monday they closed the school. It was rough,” he said of his early coaching career. “At Emmet I was the only coach on campus.”

Asked about his relationship with Coach Reeves, Halitzka said they first got acquainted three years ago when they were both on the same all-star staff, and they’ve stayed in touch ever since. Now they are all-star coaches once again, but their perspectives are quite different now that the old lion is retiring, and the young cub is taking his place.

“I’ve been picking his brain a lot,” said the youthful coach. “But I don’t like to come in and completely change [everything]. The older group [of girls] has been in [Clay’s] system from beginning to end, so I’m going to try to keep it as similar as possible. I’ve done some of the same things [Coach Reeves] does, but not to the same degree he has.”

One of those areas is defense. Under Reeves the Lady Bulldogs were known for their tough 1-3-1 zone defense, but Coach Halitzka prefers playing man-to-man. “There’s no right or wrong way of playing, but it’s hard to change when you’re so used to it. But my championship group three years ago ran a ton of 1-3-1, so I don’t plan on changing instantly what they’ve had success with. I want to make things relate to what they’ve done in the past as much as possible.

“Offensively we are very similar,” added the new coach. “We play fast and shoot the ball often and go get it. We’re capable of running sets when needed, but neither one of us have to run a set offense. Playing a high tempo defense leads to a high tempo offense. The last four years [Bergman] broke the record for the most three-pointers made in a season ever. It helps when you’re knocking down the shots, and Greenwood has always had those types of scorers. They lost a lot of scorers from last season, but they return some good pieces too, and some others will have to step up. There are a lot of scorers left on the bench and it’s their turn to step up and see what they can accomplish.”

Halitzka confided that he had a short list of schools he followed if any of those coaching positions ever came open, and Greenwood was at the top of that list. "Greenwood was the number one school where I hoped to coach one day,” he said. “When it came open, I figured it was the right time. The community there loves basketball, and I look at it as a bigger [version of] Bergman. Replacing Clay Reeves is going to be fun itself, but it's the next chapter, and we'll see how it unfolds. I thought it would be a few years before I would make the move. [But] the Greenwood job only comes open every 10 to 20 years, so I decided to go ahead and take a shot at it."

Asked if he felt any added pressure following a legend like Reeves, the good-natured coach said, “Not really. No one wants to be the guy who follows THE GUY. Clay had the most legendary career anyone could have, and he decided to wait until he won three straight championships before he let anyone follow him. I gave him a big thank you yesterday. But when you start comparing yourself against others, you’re never going to be happy. The main thing is to compete at a high level, win every game, one game at a time, and whatever the ending, that’s what you get.”

Asked about assistant coaches, he said with a smile, “I’m bringing all my assistants with me,” meaning that he didn’t have an assistant coach at Bergman. “Fifth through twelfth [grades] for the last decade with no assistant. A hundred games a year.” For the first time in his coaching career, Halitzka will have an assistant coach in Greenwood’s Ryan Lensing, a GHS grad who also played for the Bulldogs over a decade ago. “He’s been a big help so far,” said Halitzka. “We get along well, and he gets along with the kids very well. He’s not afraid to work and does a good job.

Concluding the interview, Halitzka was asked to gauge the hand he’s been dealt for the upcoming season with the Lady Bulldogs. In summary, he sees a lot of promise and potential with three proven starters returning and some good complimentary pieces. But he’s only had a few days to judge for himself and watched a limited amount of video from last season. He also wants to get his new players in the weight room during the off-season.

“I told the girls, there’s no right or wrong way to how much you lift or what kind of defense you play. It’s just having competitive athletes with that killer instinct and work ethic. In the past my girls have always been heavy lifters. They took a lot of pride in being strong and doing stuff a lot of the boys can do in the weight room. I think they are going to really enjoy it. But we’re going to play extremely hard and fast. We’ll have to see how much depth we have, and foul trouble could be an issue. There’s a thin line between being too aggressive and knowing when to let go.

“Most people doing the rankings would put us third in the conference,” revealed the coach. “Behind Farmington and Mountain Home. Farmington is moving up to 5A and they walked through the 4A championship. I don’t think anyone stayed within 35 points of them.” It seems the 5A West will be a lot more competitive next season than in the recent past when the Lady Bulldogs were clearly the top team.

The Farmington girls are loaded with several new and returning players who have Division I college offers, including an incoming freshman already offered by the Lady Razorbacks. Mountain Home was the only 5A West conference team to beat Greenwood last season and the Lady Bombers return all but one of their starting five and Harrison’s best player moved in this off-season, a 5’10” guard who averaged about 20 points a game.

The new coach also has a lot of experience working with younger kids down to the middle school level, and hopes to do the same at Greenwood, developing something like the successful Pitbulls football program, only in basketball. He will likely need help to do so, including any qualified volunteers who might be willing to come forward and offer their time and services.

At the start of the 2023-24 season, Coach Reeves was quick to share his success with the junior high coaches, the travel team programs, and with parents who entrusted their daughters into his care. “I give a tremendous amount of credit to the travel team coaches, the boys’ and girls’ clubs, church leagues, and people who do lessons. Our kids do all those things and that helps a lot. And Coach [Amy] Hardy and Coach [Lundon] Lensing do a great job in junior high, and all that stuff leads up to high school. That’s what makes my job great and makes us a successful program.

“I look at the players we have now and the players we have coming up all the way down into some of the elementary grades. I know what we have, and the future here is great, whether I’m here or someone else is here, it’s going to be a successful program, with the players and community support we have. When it’s time [to retire] it will be time. You’ll know when you know,” said the coach. “But that doesn’t go through my mind a whole lot. I love doing what I’m doing. I don’t have any hobbies besides this. This is my hobby. It’s not a job to me. It was fortunate that I came here,” said Reeves last fall at the beginning of what would be his final season – another championship season.

So, farewell to a great coach. A legendary coach, and thanks for all the thrills and memories. We wish you all the best in your retirement and we hope to see you around H.B. Stewart Arena from time to time. As for the new guy. We welcome Coach Halitzka with open arms and expect that he will have similar success to Coach Reeves, becoming a legend in his own right 20 years or so from now.

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