(KMAland) -- KMA Sports is continuing to announce the 2020-21 Hall of Fame class throughout the month of August. Today, we welcome the first of four coaches in this year’s class.
Tom Heithoff put together one of the most impressive stretches of success in KMAland history while leading the St. Albert girls basketball program. Not many took the program seriously when he took over in 1987. Nineteen years later, he had amassed 279 wins and five state tournament appearances.
“I really wanted to care as much for that 15th player as I did for the first,” Coach Heithoff told KMA Sports. “One thing I really looked at was confidence level. Young people struggle with confidence everyday, so for you to berate them makes it even worse. I always tried to raise them up.”
At the time Heithoff took the St. Albert position, he had risen to the top assistant for Omaha Gross boys basketball. However, a special connection to the school made the job appealing. And that connection is what led him into coaching.
“My dad was very much into the St. Albert school board and supporting many of the teachers and coaches,” Heithoff said. “(Growing up), all the coaches would come over to my house all the time, and I saw how happy they were being a coach. I really thought I would want to go to work everyday happy and do something I love for a long time.”
The Saintes basketball program had unbridled success during Heithoff’s tenure. He slowly built the program up to the point of their first state tournament appearance in 1994. They liked it so much that they kept going in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 2000.
“When I got there, my first thought was that I wanted this program to be seen as important,” Heithoff said.
In 1994, the state made a decision that helped Heithoff’s program take off. Even while the rest of the state was playing 6-on-6, St. Albert was playing 5-on-5, and they were generally contending with larger schools during that time.
“They announced there would be four classes of 5-on-5, and I thought ‘Here we go,’” Heithoff said. “That was one of the things that really moved us along, the ability to play in our own class size.”
The 1994 trip to state was pretty special, as his daughters Katie and Annie were both on the team.
“By the time they reached (high school), we were starting to chug along,” Heithoff said.
Annie would earn three first-team all-state honors during her time in the St. Albert program, and just as soon as she left, Jennifer Rochelle came along. Rochelle was also a three-time all-stater and led a class that went 90-9.
“We ran through quite a good spell,” Heithoff said. “We only got one trip to state (with Rochelle’s group), and that ended up as runner-up. I always thought we should have gone eight in a row, but there were a few good teams that had another thing to say about it.”
St. Albert won their first state tournament game in 1997 before losing to the eventual state champion in the semifinals. They won twice in 2000 and lost a tight 49-45 battle with North Cedar in the championship game.
“State seems so far out there until you qualify,” Heithoff said. “Then it’s just very, very special. That first one will always be the most special time. We probably celebrated a little hard for the week getting ready. We were all happy, and then all of a sudden we weren’t very happy when we got up there. Once you’ve experienced it, you can really plan for the real essence (of state).”
Heithoff is back in coaching now, and he was an important part of the St. Albert program going back to state for the first time in 20 years this past winter, working as an assistant coach under Coach Dick Wettengel.
Heithoff will join the rest of the 2020-21 KMA Sports Hall of Fame class in being inducted at some point at a later date to be determined. Hear much more from the former engineer of St. Albert girls basketball in the full interview below.
2020 KMA SPORTS HALL OF FAME CLASS