BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
The Rochester boys basketball team was playing Manchester on Jan. 22, 2021, and coach Rob Malchow was sick and could not coach.
Assistant coach Tony Stesiak had to fill in. It was a role with which he was familiar, but it was a role he had not experienced in nearly four years.
The Zebras won 58-52, hanging on after building a 16-point second half lead and relying on the team making 10 of 11 free throws in the fourth quarter to hang on.
The win was Rochester’s first over Manchester in eight years, a noteworthy accomplishment for a team that went on to win the Three Rivers Conference with an unblemished 9-0 record.
Stesiak had coached the Rochester girls team from 2000-17 before stepping down. Now he had reacquired the desire to coach again: The long practices in the gym, the time spent pressing rewind and fast forward watching game film and the joys of watching teenagers develop as people and players were coming back to him.
What happened on April 25, 2022, is tied to what happened on Jan. 22, 2021. Stesiak was officially hired as the new girls basketball coach at Winamac on that date. He said that he always intended on getting a head coaching job again after he stepped down at Rochester in 2017.
“I was not applying for jobs and things like that of just trying to find a job,” Stesiak said. “I wanted to find the job. And I think I found it.”
Stesiak is also stepping down from teaching at the Rochester schools after 27 years – six years as a middle school teacher and the last 21 years as a high school teacher – and taken the dean of students job at Winamac as well. His coaching experience consists of two years as a middle school boys assistant, three years as the girls JV coach, 17 years as the girls head coach and five years as a boys varsity assistant.
He is replacing Kole Kroft as girls basketball coach and John Hendryx as dean of students at Winamac.
He said his desire to run a team went from the back of his mind to the front of his mind on that Friday night at Manchester when he had to coach the Rochester boys in a pinch. It felt “familiar” and “natural.”
“Really even when I stepped down from the Rochester girls job, I did not intend to be a lifetime assistant,” Stesiak said. “There was always a thought that that was sort of a recharge or a break or a pause or whatever you might want to call it. Just a chance to take a step back. … I resigned from that; I didn’t retire. And so I thought in the back of my mind there would probably be a day where I would want to do that again. Did not know when.
“But the fire was still there, and that was a great time those five years spent on the boys side both coaching boys as an assistant and with that particular boys coaching staff – a really, really great time and really valuable to my development as a coach.”
Stesiak said he thought he might have wanted to be a boys coach, maybe at Rochester.
“Things change, people change, situations change,” Stesiak said.
And that led to something more personal that pushed him in the direction of Winamac. Growing up in LaPorte, his best friend from high school was Ryan Higley. Stesiak and Higley were friends going back to when they played baseball together when they were 13.
Higley died on Jan. 10. He was 49. Stesiak missed this year’s game against Manchester on Jan. 21 because he was attending Higley’s funeral in Carmel.
“That was kind of a reflection point of hey, life’s pretty short to sit back and wait for things to happen,” Stesiak said. “If you’ve got opportunities or you’ve got dreams that you want to get after, don’t wait. And maybe that hit the fast forward button a little.”
Stesiak is aware of Winamac girls basketball tradition. Winamac has had just three girls basketball coaches since 1986 – Jim Swaney, Jeff Wagner and Kroft.
It was Swaney who reached out to Stesiak when he took over at Rochester. Stesiak said Swaney was gracious to him. He did not fully understand why. Winamac was a top rival and usually a sectional rival, and he was a first-time coach in his late 20s.
Swaney was under no obligation to be nice to Stesiak.
Swaney would later recruit Stesiak to participate in a weekly Class 2A poll as part of his role in the coaches association. Doing the poll required a one-hour phone call every Sunday night during the season. Stesiak said the subject matter of that call used to be all about basketball, but the conversations between Swaney and him gradually morphed. They became less about basketball and more about other subjects – parenting, teaching, coaching.
Rochester won the Class 2A state title in 2004. A formidable Winamac team went 19-3 that year, but two of their losses were to Rochester, including a 73-62 loss in the sectional final that year. But Winamac also knocked Stesiak-coached Rochester teams out of the sectional in 2002, 2005 and 2012.
“We had some of the best battles in my coaching career were against Winamac, and some were wins and some were losses,” Stesiak said. “And anybody who was in the gym during those moments, both of your teams went after it, but he showed me a lot as an older coach and as a competitor to help others when you can. We had a great relationship.”
Stesiak learned how to manage a friendship with a coach who is also a top rival.
“We would fight tooth and nail against each other and maybe not talk the next day, per se,” Stesiak joked. “But then in a couple days, we would. The games meant that much.”
Swaney retired from coaching and teaching at Winamac in 2010 and moved to Michigan.
When Keaton Stesiak, Tony’s daughter and a 2016 Rochester grad, tore her ACL and had surgery during the summer of 2014, Swaney called and left a voicemail on Stesiak’s phone saying that he had heard about Keaton’s injury and was thinking of Stesiak and his daughter. That eight-year-old voicemail remains on Stesiak’s phone to this day.
He said some people from Winamac called to gauge his interest. He said the process went “smoothly.”
He remembered those intense games against Winamac and Swaney, and Stesiak noticed how well the Winamac community supported its teams. And one of the first people to text him when he got the Winamac job was Swaney.
“It felt like the right fit at the right time,” Stesiak said.
Winamac went 7-17 last season, but that ended a streak of six consecutive winning seasons.
“This is not a rebuild,” Stesiak said. “This is not a fix-it type program. I just want to continue on with the legacy and tradition that those three continued on. … I hope we can have a program that those in three in particular can be proud of and the Winamac community can be proud of.”
Stesiak acknowledges that Winamac’s top three scorers from last year – Kingsley Kroft, Ella Gearhart and Kaya Campbell – are all graduating.
That, however, will not change Stesiak’s philosophy of coaching: Focus on what your players do well and play to those strengths.
“This is the place I wanted to be, and we’ll figure out the X’s and O’s, and we’re going to develop the players the best that we can,” Stesiak said. “And we’ll win hopefully in a way that plays to the strengths of the players that we have. I’m not worried about the X’s and O’s stuff.”
Stesiak said Steph Smith will be retained from Kroft’s coaching staff as an assistant. Smith is a Winamac Athletic Hall of Famer and a former player under Swaney.
Justin Ruff, who had been an assistant boys coach, will move over and be an assistant on the girls staff. Husband and wife Jake and Jenna Ruff will be volunteer assistants and also be involved in coaching at the middle school level.
Jenna Ruff (nee Easterday) is a 2006 Rochester grad who played for Stesiak in high school and was a sophomore on the 2004 state title team.