(Photo by Arianna Grainey/Casteel Athletics)
By Perry Cohen
The 2016-2017 basketball season presented a number of challenges for Casteel women’s coach Erika Ernst.
Before the start of this season Ernst told Casteel’s athletic director, Ryan Ridenour, her goal was to finish the season .500.
The goal to reach .500 would be considered a huge success for the program, which only won three games last season. However, Casteel’s record currently stands at 16-6 and the team ranks eighth in the 3A division.
Ernst has a long history in basketball, which she believes has helped her guide the team to the successful season they are having thus far.
Despite her experiences, this is Ernst’s first time coaching women’s basketball.
“I think coaching with a different mindset has helped me and just being around the game in general,” Ernst said. “I come in here and I don’t look at it like a girls team. We coach them the exact same way.”
Before beginning her college basketball career at Louisiana State University, Ernst played four years at Charlotte High School in Michigan. She earned All-American honors four times during her high school career. Ernst is one of the states all-time leading scorers and still leads the state in assists.
Ernst also built a post-graduate league with her father Jerry, who coached 40 years of high school basketball, and Dale Beard, the best friend of NBA legend Magic Johnson.
Ernst, who has only been to Arizona a handful of times, said her eventual arrival at Casteel happened by chance.
“I was looking for a new challenge in my life and saw there was a high school job open in Arizona,” she said, “I looked at the girl’s resumes and saw what they’ve put online and each one of them said they wanted to play at a higher level. I thought that was tremendous because you don’t normally don’t see girls that think on that level and are willing to put goals out there like that.”
The culture of the school and the group of girls she was going to inherit from the previous coach is what drew Ernst to Casteel.
She said all the girls needed were someone to believe in them.
Upon her arrival on campus, coach Ernst decided if the girls wanted to reach new heights she would give them the training and exposure they needed.
Just this year the team has traveled to Las Vegas and San Diego for tournaments.
Ernst sees a lot of three hour practices and intense training in the team’s future.
“It’s been tough, honestly, it’s been tough,” Ernst said. “We have two juniors on the team and they remember a lot of it. Our sophomores played on varsity last year and they remember a lot of the games. I think the biggest thing is letting them see they can have the success and that last year was last year.”
From her experiences tagging along with her father throughout his 40-year coaching career and playing at the collegiate level, the first-year coach has been able to share lessons with her team that she learned from a young age.
Ernst remembers listening to basketball greats as a young child such as Hubie Brown, John Wooden, and Bob Knight at coaching clinics in addition to Shaquille O’Neal and Dale Brown during her time at LSU.
“I was blessed to be around people like that because I learned it’s not just about the wins and losses,” Ernst said. “It’s about teaching the kids to come together as a family and teaching them to play with everything they have on the floor because you never know when your last chance is.”
Ernst explained how her team is like a family. The girls love each other and they play for each other.
With Casteel’s new success, Ernst said she doesn’t have to worry about the character of her players.
“I don’t even have to deal with these girls,” she said. “I think part of my job is letting them realize how good they can be. They’re just about the most humble group of girls you could ever come across and they have a natural love for each other.”
Although Ernst is getting more used to coaching high school basketball, she said the challenges don’t get any weaker.
“I don’t think challenges should subside,” she said. “I think you should always look to improve your players and keep improving. If you start to plateau then you’re not doing your job and maybe you need to step out.”
At the moment, coach Ernst and the Casteel Colts are not focusing on adding hardware to the schools trophy case.
“At the end of the year, what will make me happy, is if the girls come out and compete every game,” Ernst said. “They need to continue to get better individually and as a team.”
The Casteel Women’s basketball team has five games left on its schedule. The team looks forward to making its first playoff push.