Gorch on the Porch: New Slicers coach has healthy outlook

File photo by Scott AllenLa Porte's Andy Samuelson, left, and Garrott Ott-Large defend against a drive by Michigan City's Keishawn Lewis last season.

It wasn’t hard to hear it in the voice on La Porte High School athletic director Ed Gilliland when I talked to him on the phone last week about the hiring of new boys basketball coach Kyle Benge.

It sounded like something between relief and exasperation.

“Moving on from boys basketball … we have 19 other sports to focus on, too, and they’re starting soon,” he said.

That’s the easy answer when I asked about his overall thoughts on what has happened with the boys basketball coaching position over the last three months — from longtime coach Tom Wells getting a thumbs up job approval back in April from Gilliland, principal Ben Tonagel and supposedly superintendent Mark Francesconi, to a decision made that Wells wouldn’t be renewed sometime between April and June, to a vote on the nonrenewal being made despite multiple conflicts of interest on the school board, and then Benge, a former player and assistant at Plymouth High School, approved last week.

After talking to Benge, who will be a head coach for the first time at 31 years old, I’m convinced he’s a good guy and good coach who is realistic about his new gig.

“It’s going to be a learning experience,” he said. “We graduated a lot of seniors, but it’s a new opportunity and challenge.”

The good thing about Benge getting the job is that he really wanted it. Benge said La Porte was on his “high school short list” after he’d been a college assistant, and that stood out to Gilliland.

When I asked Benge about the circumstances preceding his hire, he said the right things.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” said Benge, whose father, Roy, has been the athletic director at Plymouth for 20 years. “I gotta be myself and not worry about outside noise.”

Well Kyle, some of that ‘noise’ is very inside considering two moms of players on your roster are on the school board responsible for ousting Wells, a coach who is liked and respected by myriad region coaches, including the whole Duneland Conference. So my advice to you is mind your Ps and Qs and be careful.

• More coaching craziness: Speaking of school boards making questionable decisions, the La Crosse boys coaching situation has gotten crazier.

If you recall, three-year head coach Jeff Mitzner, who has a lifelong connection to one of the smallest schools in the state as a graduate and having a son attending there, was not rehired in April. According to Tri-Township superintendent Tim Somers, the boys position was opened up and there were four applicants, including Mitzner.

A committee of nine people — including two students — made a decision and the school board approved it. And that new coach was Jeff Marlow, who was the Rensselaer Central head girls basketball coach for 13 seasons, producing a 147-143 record with two sectional titles.

Guess what? Marlow has quit before even getting to the start of the school year, let alone the basketball season.

“I have resigned for personal and family reasons,” Marlow told me on Thursday.

Now let’s not ask why he would take the job, only to resign a few months later. Things happen and he likely has a very good reason. My question to the school board is, “How do you feel now?”

Mitzner didn’t have a great win-loss record (18-49), but it’s twice as many wins as the previous coach had in three seasons, and the Tigers were improving under Mitzner — they won a sectional game and were leading Westville in the semifinal in the third quarter. But he’s loyal to the school and a good person.

Instead, you went outside your small town and got burned.

Why not correct your mistake by rehiring Mitzner … if he’ll accept it. When I asked him if he would go back, all he said was, “No comment.”

Smart man. He still lives in La Crosse with his son Jaye — a multiple winner in the La Porte County Fair 4-H Swine Barrow competition — still on the basketball team and I wouldn’t want to burn any bridges if I were in his position.

Speaking of Jaye, the players are the ones who get the shortest end of the stick in this dysfunctional situation. Most teams play games or tourneys over the summer. Last year, the Tigers played in a shootout in La Porte and multiple games against region teams.

All they’ve had this summer is open gym three days a week. No games, no tourneys.

Sounds like they need a coach who cares. They had one and he’s still available now that there’s an opening.

Reach sports editor Steve T. Gorches at sgorches@thenewsdispatch.com or (219) 214-4206. Follow him on Twitter @SteveTGorches.

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