A 44-year reunion in the making is now a reality for Becky Carlson. The former Iola High girls basketball coach will be taking over the reins at her alma mater Marmaton Valley next season.
“I’m really excited, and I haven’t really wrapped my head around it yet because I was just coaching here,” Carlson said. “I’m excited to go there, and I feel the same way I did when I came here to Iola.”
While attending MVHS, Carlson guided the Wildcats to back-to-back state tournament appearances in 1975 and 1976.
Even as a kid, Carlson took to basketball.
“When I was a little girl, every Wednesday and Sunday my three cousins and I would go to my grandma’s house. They were all 10 years older than I. We played basketball in their driveway, and there was no mercy. So, I had to learn how to score on a guy that was big, and I would get slammed into the wall.”
The street-style basketball paid its dividends.
As a middle-schooler, Carlson led the Elsmore Dragons to undefeated seasons in seventh and eighth grade.
Upon entering high school, Marmaton Valley had yet to establish a girls basketball team.
Carlson recalls those above her pressuring the school board to create a girls program, which ultimately arrived during Carlson’s sophomore year. At their first turn as a team in 1973-74, the girls were unstoppable.
MVHS reached the state tournament in consecutive seasons during Carlson’s junior and senior seasons, but were unable to turn those trips into trophies.
“Four of us were on a team that went to state in track and placed every year in the relays. So, we were a very fast team,” Carlson said. “But when we got to state, it was just different. We played teams like Hill City that obviously played basketball longer than we had.”
The Wildcats were out-gunned at state, but during the regular season, they dominated Allen County. One of MV’s signature wins came against Crest, where according to Carlson, the Wildcats posted 101 points on the scoreboard.
“We played Yates Center and Humboldt, and we three teams were the best in the state. Those were our biggest rivals, and I remember Yates Center hadn’t been beat when we played them one year, and we gave them their first loss of the season, so that was pretty cool.”
Carlson continued her basketball, volleyball, and track career at Allen Community College before heading west to Hillsboro College for her final two years. With her college career coming to an end, Carlson had well in mind how she wanted to carve her future.
“At Elsmore, we had softball in the summer. We had little girls teams, like eight and under, and when you got to be in high school, you got to coach those kids,” Carlson said. “I figured out right then, that coaching is what I want to do. I love kids, and I wanted to coach.”
Carlson’s first coaching gig came at Hillsboro High in 1983-1984, where she served as the assistant basketball coach, head volleyball coach, and assistant track coach. While juggling duties at the high school, she was also the head middle school girls basketball coach.
The next year in 1984-85, Carlson became Hillsboro’s head girls basketball coach. From that season until her departure in 2005, Carlson finished with a 333-149 record, along with back-to-back 3A state championships in 1995 and 1996. Before her basketball success, Carlson coached Hillsboro volleyball to a state championship in 1986.
“They were just good,” Carlson said. “They were good athletes, great kids, and loved each other. They were hardworking, dedicated, and a very self-motivated group. There were an exceptional few years there.”
Carlson admits for years she was looking for an avenue to return home. Her father had passed away and mother was sick, but in 2005, a position to be a P.E. teacher at Lincoln Elementary opened, and Carlson jumped at the chance. With the job came a position to be the assistant girls basketball coach at the high school, but that shortly changed.
“I moved here Aug. 1, and got a call from the athletic director saying our basketball guy has just resigned, and asked if I wanted the job,” Carlson said. “I said I needed to think about that because my mindset was to come here and spend time with my family. He told me ‘well, you better think about that because you have some great athletes, and I think you would want to coach this team.”
Iola was returning eight seniors for the 05-06 season, putting high expectations for Carlson’s first season. The moment Carlson stepped in the gym, she knew she had something special.
“I walked in the gym, and these girls looked like a college team. They were a dream team,” Carlson said. “When I talked to them for the first time, I was like holy smokes! It took time for both of us to adjust, but it was great.”
The Fillies went 24-2 on the path to their first and only 4A state title. Iola’s two losses that season came against Labette County, who’d finish third in 4A, and 2A runner-up Burlington. It was Carlson’s third state basketball championship, and while it wasn’t the most dominant journey, it may have been the most meaningful in her storied career.
“It meant a lot to all of us, because I knew a lot of people here, and I saw what it meant to them,” Carlson said. “In Hillsboro, they won all the time. Here, it was really cool to see how proud the town was of these girls and what they did to this community. When we got back to Iola that night, there were at least 500 people around the square. It was really, really neat, and I had never seen anything like it.”
That pride was on display even more so this year with Forever Fillies night on Feb. 7. The night was inspired by Earl McIntosh, who is a key figure for the Iola Mustangs Football Alumni, and organized special reunions for the 1942 and 1948 Mustang squads. McIntosh came to Carlson this year pushing for an event to honor past female athletes from Iola High, and from there the idea was born.
And although the evening didn’t consist of another state trophy or even a win, it may well have been Carlson’s most memorable moment coaching in Iola.
“It was pretty cool. I learned a lot that day about how the Fillies started, I also played basketball at Allen County with some of the ladies that came back, so that was cool for me. That night was very special to me, but I also felt the empathy of those stands, that they were a part of something bigger.”
For Carlson, basketball is more than just the x’s and o’s, but a pathway to help young girls become adults through hard work and discipline.
“I just try to get the best out of everybody. I push them to their limit, and I think they know I like them, and that is really important. I don’t have to be their buddy, but I think most of the time they trust me. I had a girl that I coached out in Hillsboro, and I think she is a counselor now up in Topeka. Anyway, she sent me a letter one day — back in the day when we wrote letters — and said ‘whenever I felt like stopping, I just remember you telling me, you can do this.’”
If anyone knows Carlson’s dedication to her athletes, it’s Kelsey Larson. Larson has served as an assistant for Carlson the past three years, and played under Carlson while at Iola High. Next season, it will likely be Larson’s turn to captain the ship as Carlson switches gears.
“To sum it up, I couldn’t have asked for a better high school coach that created such a great relationship with me,” Larson said. “She saw my potential and helped push me to be the best that I could be on and off the floor. I’m sad she won’t be the coach at the high school next year, but I know that she is someone that I will always be able to call and get advice from.”
Even though Carlson will be in new, yet familiar territory, her goal will be the same — get the most out of her athletes, and perhaps add another state winner’s medal to her trophy case.
“I don’t know, we will see,” Carlson said. “But it is a goal, and I think wherever I go that is a goal.”