Senior Betsy Thistleton has always been more of a volleyball aficionado. But it’s hard to grow up with eight brothers without picking up some basketball too.
So when Mike Roberts, the athletic director at Hillsdale Academy, offered her a job coaching the junior varsity girls’ basketball team last fall, she didn’t hesitate to accept.
“It was really fun to be a part of the academy culture for the time, just to kind of get to know more families in the area and be invested outside the college,” Thistleton said. “And it was really fun also to be friends with people who aren’t just in our four-year age group.”
For most Hillsdale students, the rigors of academics and other campus responsibilities are more than enough to stay occupied. But until the season ended last week, Thistleton managed to split her schedule between duties up and down the hill, carving out afternoons for practices and evenings for games.
“It was a lot of time, because we had practice basically every day for an hour and a half or two hours,” she said. “And that was usually in the middle of the afternoon, from when they got out of school until about dinnertime. So I did have to shift my schedule around: wake up earlier to do homework, stay up later to do it. But it was definitely worth it.”
Thistleton first got to know Roberts as a student in his History and Philosophy of Sports class last semester. So when he started looking for a student to coach the JV team, he invited her to apply.
“I had heard through the grapevine that Betsy was interested in the job,” Roberts said. “Once I started doing my homework and asking around campus, it became clear she would be an outstanding fit at Hillsdale Academy.”
Although she had never coached a basketball team before, Thistleton came prepared. She had previously coached volleyball at Will Carleton Academy in Hillsdale during her freshman year.
“I think it was really helpful to have coached volleyball before,” she said. “Just learning how to communicate with parents, organize rides, to know the protocol of introducing yourself to refs before games, that sort of thing.”
Nor was Thistleton a stranger to the sport, which she often played at home prior to college.
“It was not as much my sport, but my brothers were very much into it,” she said, “so I’ve had a lot of basketball education over the years. They’re all really good at basketball, so I played a lot of knock-out and pick-up games with them.”
That’s not to say, of course, that there wasn’t a learning curve. The skill sets of playing and coaching don’t always overlap.
“I had to learn how to go about calling timeouts, when to call them, stuff like that,” Thistleton said.
Fortunately, Academy varsity coach Kevin Reed was happy to lend a helping hand, especially early in the season.
“Coach Reed is an amazing coach,” Thistleton said. “He knows the game of basketball very well, and works so hard at his job. He always had new ideas for how to improve, and spent lots of time researching, watching films, and scouting.
“It was such a great experience to learn from him,” she said.
Most importantly, Thistleton helped the girls of the JV team grow together as athletes and as friends.
“One of the things that I saw the most improvement in was the sophomore class helping the freshmen get used to that sort of a game,” she said. “At the beginning of the year they just didn’t know each other very well or fit as a team, and at the end of the year they were all best buds — learning to encourage one another on the court and off the court.”
For his part, Roberts agreed.
“She was a great role model for our girls,” he said. “You can tell when a coach has the respect of the athletes, and this was the case with Betsy.”