BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
INDIANAPOLIS –- Jeff Brooke sits at a table at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Monday.
It’s the IHSAA coaches interview session held before the girls basketball state championship games every year. Only eight coaches get invited.
He’s on his way to the Class 1A state championship game for the second straight year when Pioneer plays Loogootee at 11 a.m. Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
While making the state finals might be considered the pinnacle of coaching success, he will say that the sainted one is his wife Angela.
She’s been in the middle of it all. Her husband is the girls basketball coach at Pioneer. Two of her daughters are star players on the team. Her brother is the boys basketball coach at Pioneer.
In 2005, Jeff Brooke was named the boys basketball coach at Delphi. Angela was helping care for 4-year-old Emily and 2-year-old Olivia at home, and she was expecting the couple’s third child at the time.
“My wife is a saint,” Brooke said. “She put up with a lot of stuff, a lot of hours of me being gone. That was kind of normal. When she married me, she knew I was a basketball coach, and there was a lot of time there.”
The child she was expecting is Ashlynn, who will join Olivia on the court Saturday. In 2008, the Brookes moved to Royal Center, back to where Angela was from, and Jeff Brooke took a job as a math teacher in the Pioneer schools.
The course of history was beginning to change.
Thirteen years later, his daughters will be there with him.
“I would say the only thing that I’ve played a role in is continuing to look to see how God has gifted them and then push them in that direction that I see that giftedness,” Brooke said. “And my wife has done a wonderful job of encouraging our kids to pursue the paths they want to pursue. From a coach perspective, I see the gifts and abilities they’ve got, and I try to play to their strengths. As a dad, I love them to death. They continue to persevere and strive and achieve things that I never imagined they could achieve.”
Brooke was asked if coaching prevents him from enjoying these moments as a father. He said that just the opposite is true.
“I think I enjoy it even more,” coach Brooke said. “Sometimes I wish I could go up and just be a fan. But boy, that fades pretty quickly when I’m the first one to be able to high-five my daughter – either Olivia or Ashlynn – I’m the first one to pump the fist and tell her ‘great job.’ As a dad, I would never give this experience up.”
But it’s not just Olivia and Ashlynn.
His roster includes Hailey Cripe, a junior who has already crossed the 1,000-point mark for her career and who is averaging 20.1 ppg during Pioneer’s state tournament run. Cripe is likely a Division I softball recruit.
“Hailey Cripe is one determined young lady,” coach Brooke said. “She can be a defensive menace, and that really leads to our offensive prowess at times. Sometimes, she can put her will onto other people.”
Madison Blickenstaff is a senior forward-post player who scored a season-high 22 points in the regional semifinal win over Kouts. An Ohio Christian volleyball recruit, she also had 10 points and nine rebounds against Northfield in a 70-54 semistate win Saturday.
“I’ve seen her transform over the last two years into a heck of a basketball player,” coach Brooke said of Blickenstaff.
And then there’s Mackenzie Walker, a defensive-minded guard who had a tone-setting seven first-quarter points against Triton in the regional final and who is also No. 1 in her class academically.
“Mackenzie Walker does a great job of locking down (opponents) that she wasn’t doing earlier in her career,” coach Brooke said. “So me having that impact on them? I just hope it’s my grit and my determination that wears off on them maybe.”
Brooke credits the “level of academic smarts” of his players for being able to make adjustments during games. Against Northfield, Pioneer had to switch from a 3-2 zone defense to a man-to-man defense in the first half after the hot shooting Lady Norse gained a 28-16 lead at one point in the second quarter.
Beginnings in basketball
Brooke is a Frankfort native and played basketball for four years at Clinton Prairie High School, from where he graduated in 1993.
Brooke was the point guard for coach Bob Blaydes.
“I was able to play and learn a lot those four years with coach Blaydes,” Brooke said.
In 1995, Brooke, then still a student at Purdue, took a job as an assistant coach at Rossville under coach Jeff Henley.
“That’s where I gained a lot of basketball knowledge,” Brooke said of Henley.
He spent nine years on Henley’s coaching staff as a varsity assistant and JV coach. In 2002, Brooke was the JV coach at Rossville when the Hornets beat Barr-Reeve 79-68 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to win the Class 1A state title.
“So a lot of stuff that I do now goes back to Jeff Henley and what he ran back then,” Brooke said.
His careers as a math teacher and a basketball coach were on parallel tracks. Brooke describes coaching as “teaching in a different classroom.”
Brooke’s first varsity head coaching job was the Delphi job. Blaydes, his former high school coach, was the athletic director at Delphi who hired him. The Oracles went 5-16 in his one season.
Brooke describes the season at Delphi as a “learning experience.”
“I learned a lot about the game and the speed of the game and what needed to happen,” Brooke said. “I learned about how to work with players, how to play to a player’s strength to see what they have.”
Brooke said he had a “my way or the highway” mindset when he got the Delphi job. He admits now that that approach doesn’t work. Rather, he learned that a coach must adjust his philosophy to best suit his players.
Brooke has applied those lessons with the Pioneer girls. He describes himself as a methodical, “Big Ten”-style coach in his upbringing but has adapted to become more of an up-and-down-the-floor, “ACC”-style coach at Pioneer.
Often times, Pioneer has scored baskets just beating teams down the court with their speed.
“I guess some of it used to be I would want to control the tempo when I would want to control how many passes and where it goes,” Brooke said. “And these girls have shown me we can take care of it. We can do our thing, and I’ve let them.”
Moving to Pioneer
The daughter of Roger and Linda McKaig, Angela grew up in Cass County and played basketball for four years at Pioneer. Her brother Darren McKaig had gotten into coaching himself and is now the boys basketball coach at Pioneer.
Darren McKaig said when there are family get-togethers at his house, there is usually a basketball game going on.
“I am a very proud uncle,” Darren McKaig, who was the Pioneer girls coach from 2008-11, said. “Sometimes I even get emotional watching them play out there. It is amazing the opportunity they have to go play in a state finals two years in a row. I’m their biggest cheerleader.”
Jeff and Angela met at Purdue through a mutual friend. They have been married for 21 years.
Jeff said his wife empathized with him during the Delphi year.
Still, the hours were long. There wasn’t a teaching position open at Delphi, so Brooke made the 15-minute drive from Rossville to Delphi after school for basketball practice every day.
“Thank goodness for my wife and her patience,” Brooke said.
Asked about the end of his tenure at Delphi, he said it was “time to move on.”
He went back to Rossville for two more years as JV coach on Mike Gick’s staff before the move to Pioneer.
A math teacher at every level from seventh grade to pre-calculus, he got his administrator’s license in 2011 and a master’s degree in educational leadership and administration from Ball State in 2013.
Later in 2013, Riverside Intermediate School in Plymouth named him their new principal. He was driving from Royal Center to Plymouth every day.
In 2014, Brooke returned to Pioneer as the high school assistant principal. Brooke was named principal in 2019.
Meanwhile, football coach Mike Johnson left Pioneer to become the coach at Logansport in 2016. Adam Berry, who had been the girls basketball coach, was hired as the football coach to replace Johnson.
Brooke then filled Berry’s void as girls basketball coach.
Pioneer went 2-20 in Berry’s lone season as coach, but Brooke said that was when the culture began to change. Pioneer scored 12 more points per game and allowed three fewer during Berry’s year as coach. Brooke also said Berry excelled at recruiting more girls to come out and play.
“He brought an atmosphere of let’s make it fun again,” Brooke said of Berry. “Let’s come in and do the work, but we also want to make it an environment of you can make mistakes, the mental mindset of a growth mindset. It’s OK to make mistakes. Let’s learn from it and push forward. I think Adam did a really nice job of setting that up for me when I came in the year after him.”
Pioneer won eight games in Brooke’s first season. They had a three-game winning streak that season, which was their longest in six years.
Plagued by injuries, they slipped to six wins in his second season, but in 2019, Pioneer had their breakthrough. Brooke’s teams had never beaten North White during his tenure until finally breaking through for a 44-37 win in the sectional final to win their first sectional title.
At this point, Ashlynn was in middle school, naturally gravitating towards the game. Olivia loves basketball too, but it took more time, according to Brooke.
“Ashlynn fell in love with it more than Olivia did,” Brooke said. “Olivia liked to play, but I don’t think it was a love at the level of Ashlynn. I think Olivia has grown to love it as her skills have improved over the years. She finds that she falls in love with it more and more as those skills have improved over the years.”
Faith and basketball
Pioneer lost in the regional semifinals to Fremont in 2019, but they went even further in 2020.
They lost their Hoosier North opener to Knox at home and later lost at North White before reeling off 19 consecutive wins.
They shared the Hoosier North title with Knox and beat Tri-County and Caston to win their second straight sectional. Then came a heart-stopping win over Oregon-Davis in the regional semifinals on a late Cripe 3-pointer before beating Morgan Township in the regional final.
In the semistate, they routed Blue River 56-30 to advance to state for the first time.
But then came a 45-43 loss to Loogootee in the state title game.
Brooke was asked about the role of faith in his coaching and how it helped him get through a heartbreaking state championship game loss.
“God has timing for everything through that faith,” Brooke said. “And understanding that God’s plan for these girls is much bigger than my plan for them. As long as they continue to understand that putting in hard work and determination into something and you don’t get the end result that you want doesn’t mean you don’t continue to work and push forward.
“Like I said, God’s timing is perfect.”
Pioneer girls basketball coach Jeff Brooke calls a play during a 70-54 win over Northfield in a Class 1A semistate at Logansport High School Saturday. Pioneer will play Loogootee in the 1A state title game at 11 a.m. this Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (photo by Dee Brown)