One north metro basketball coach found he could come home again. Another realized she needed to get out of the house.
Columbia Heights boys’ coach Willie Braziel and Centennial girls’ coach Jill Becken have returned to the programs they brought to prominence. Braziel spent the past three years directing the Bloomington Kennedy boys and felt disconnected in a large-school environment. Becken retired from coaching at Centennial in 2011 to spend more time watching her children play college basketball.
Both felt called to return.
“I got a rare opportunity to go back,” said Braziel, who led Columbia Heights to the state tournament in 2011, the Hylanders’ first trip in 81 years. “You don’t know what you have until you no longer have it.”
Becken and the Centennial girls’ program reached the state tournament four times in seven seasons from 2003 to 2009. She retired last spring after 31 years teaching math but missed working with young people.
“I love coaching basketball and the connections you make with players,” Becken said. “Plus I’m too young to not be doing anything.”
Both return a little wiser.
Once hailed for elevating the Minneapolis Roosevelt girls’ program and later Columbia Heights, Braziel endured an 0-27 season with the Eagles last winter.
“It’s untrue that I left for that reason,” said Braziel, calling the experience a “season of humbleness” after which he re-evaluated what was important in his coaching life.
“I had a great time at Kennedy, but at a large school it’s harder to know the community and the administration,” Braziel said.
Coaching six seasons at Columbia Heights, home to about 500 fewer students than Kennedy, better fit Braziel.
“I had such a wonderful experience the first time that it made the decision to come back easy,” he said.
Becken left coaching with no plans to return. Her children’s college basketball came first. She cheered for Emily at Northern State in South Dakota and Kahla at North Dakota State. Her son, Dan, is a junior at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
Becken watched as a mom and fan rather than with a coach’s eye. And though her coaching skills didn’t diminish, Becken returns with perspective gained from time away.
“The older you get, the more you see real life is bigger than basketball,” she said. “How you impact kids in a positive manner that they will remember when they are in their 40s and 50s is important.”
Both coaches are starting fresh. Neither has a player who was on varsity the last time around. But neither is starting over. They worked with the players on their varsity rosters during the summer.
Becken taught several current players in math classes, but this season marks the first time she filled their brains with basketball strategy. Her 10th Cougars team operates much like her first, playing up-tempo offense and stingy defense. Centennial started the season 3-0.
“We definitely look to push the ball, but in order to do that, we need stops on defense,” Becken said. “If we bring that every night, we will be in every game.”
She is aware of the expectations surrounding the program, a level of excellence she helped create. The Cougars and Becken took second in the 2009 state tournament to Tayler Hill and Minneapolis South. The program’s strength endured in her absence as the Cougars reached the state tournament in 2014 and 2015.
“Not a whole lot has changed,” Becken said. “It’s a pretty big commitment.”
Braziel desires a “disciplined team that works hard,” he said. That mission starts with a certain culture, one he and longtime assistant coach Dedrick Jenkins plan to reconstruct.
“Before I left, I had established a basketball program,” he said. “That part, using the term administration used, was missing.”
The Hylanders were 17-9 last season, but Braziel desires to get back to elite status. The 2010-11 Columbia Heights team was the last to hand DeLaSalle a postseason defeat.
“I’m going back to finish what I started,” Braziel said. “I left the program in a pretty good light and I didn’t hesitate to return.”