BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
Joel Burrus lives in Rochester. His wife Ashley is from Rochester. He has three children, all age 5 or younger.
He had made the long drive from Noblesville to South Bend all too often.
The Rochester girls basketball coaching job was vacant. The fit for him was obvious.
He applied for the job, and the new Lady Z coach is both respectful of the program’s history and tradition and a relentless student of the game. He’s always looking at what other coaches are doing – be it high school, college or pro – and seeing if it fits with the players that he is coaching.
He comes to Rochester with a history of success based on defense. It’s a zone, it’s not like many other zones, and his teams play nothing but that zone – all game, every game. Burrus calls it “havoc” and “defense with your hair on fire.”
The zone gets results: The Trinity Greenlawn boys team, where Burrus’ teams averaged 13 wins per season over a five-year tenure, led the state in defensive scoring average each of the last four years. Last year’s team allowed 29.1 points per game. The next stingiest defensive team allowed 36 ppg.
“We want to lock you up,” Burrus said. “We’re going to guard you. … If you want to play for me, you’re going to have to guard.”
When he took over the Trinity Greenlawn boys, they had gone 0-21 the year before he arrived.
The situation he inherits with the Rochester girls program is not as dire. The Lady Zs have posted three straight winning seasons and 10 winning seasons in the last 12 years. They won back-to-back sectionals as recently as 2020 and 2021.
“I looked at this job, and I did some research when it opened, and I’ve seen what they’ve been able to do, and this junior class that’s going to be seniors is a very, top-heavy class,” Burrus said of a group that includes guards Rily Holloway, Kallie Watson and Emma Howdeshell, wings Sydney Haughs and Maddie Heinzmann and forwards Kennedy Jackson and Millie Scorsone. “They’ve got some really good athletes in there, multi-sport athletes, and all I keep hearing is that they want to win. They’re winners. I think those are kids I want to coach.”
Burrus guided Trinity Greenlawn, a private school located in South Bend with an enrollment of 119, as it gained IHSAA membership in the 2021-22 school year. He said he left on good terms and that it was emotional telling his players there that he was leaving. But he said he couldn’t pass up the Rochester opportunity.
“We went up there, took over a complete gut job, 0-21, just applied for the IHSAA,” Burrus said. “A lot of people thought I was crazy. And we were able to win 65 games in five years. But when this opportunity presented itself … a lot of times in coaching, you either are leaving because you’re disgruntled or you’re leaving because you were being told to leave.
“It was hard for me to leave there. As much as the decision to leave made perfect sense, they were so supportive of me and my family, and they understand why. But it was difficult because of how much the kids and the families up there, the relationships I had built, it made it difficult to leave. This was one of those deals that worked very fast.”
When he applied for the Rochester job, Burrus said he “really connected” with athletic director Kevin Renie and the committee in charge of the hire.
“He has a really good vision, and I think he’s going to let me coach,” Burrus said. “As a coach, that’s always great to hear those type things.”
Burrus owns Road Star Driving Schools, which has locations in Rochester, Wabash and Noblesville. Thus, there were many 120-mile drives – usually twice a week – between Noblesville to South Bend in order to make it to practice or a game. Coaches meetings were often conducted over the phone while he was in his car.
“I did that for five years. And my wife stayed with me,” Burrus quipped.
About coaching in the town in which he lives, he said, “I’m not going to know what to do with myself being able to coach this close.” It will also allow him to spend more time with sons Jackson, 5, Grayson, 3, and Easton, 10 months.
This is Burrus’ second girls basketball head coaching job. He also coached the Caston girls from 2014-16, and he recalls a young third-grader named Isabel Scales attending one of his camps during the summer.
But on the court, Caston went 12-33.
“Some of the tougher situations you go through as a coach, you learn from those situations and you evolve,” Burrus said. “I had to take some losses on my chin when I was at Caston, but it made me a better coach because I had to do a lot of teaching out there. We had a lot of young girls out there, some girls that didn’t have much basketball experience, let alone experience, period. And I had to teach a lot of things. At the time, I didn’t realize that, but now, looking back, I needed that situation to be able to go to Trinity and do a good job. Now because what I’ve done at Trinity, I think that I can go in here to Rochester where there are some pieces and they have had success and now I think I can take that and build with these girls and get this to the next level. That’s the goal.”
Like his predecessor Brian Jennings, Burrus comes from a basketball family. His father John is the boys basketball coach at Southwood and has 23 years of head coaching experience. A 2006 North Miami grad, Joel played for his father in high school and was later an assistant coach under him at Southwood.
Burrus said that a lifetime around basketball has led to a greater curiosity about the game.
“I think that you talk to guys like Bill Patrick, my dad, a Jack Keefer at Lawrence North, they’ll always tell you that they’re trying to evolve in some way, shape or form,” Burrus said. “And I always try to get feedback from these older coaches because I’ve always been somebody that’s been in my dad’s circle for as long as he’s been and getting to be around coaches because of him, since I was a kid, I always tried to pick up on things and little nuances and different things.
“I think if you do lose that, that’s probably when you quit coaching. I’m always trying to evolve.”
Though he is not from Rochester, he said he has been around Rochester sports long enough to know its traditions. Ashley Burrus was an all-TRC softball pitcher who was the ace in the circle for back-to-back sectional championship teams in 2004-05 and a member of Rochester’s volleyball team that advanced to the state semifinals in the fall of 2003.
Katie Felke was Ashley’s volleyball coach and the late Jim Felke was Joel’s industrial arts teacher at North Miami. Austin Lowe, Joel’s brother-in-law, was a starter on Rochester’s Class 3A state runner-up boys team in 2009.
Burrus would like the program to embrace its history. He asks, perhaps semi-rhetorically, how often former great players like Sheila McMillen or Courtney Felke have attended games since they graduated. He has already brought on Ryleigh Carr, a starter on Rochester’s 2004 Class 2A state championship team who played collegiately at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer and Huntington University, as a volunteer assistant coach.
“That to me is something that I’m really looking to bring back,” Burrus said. “Coach (Tony) Stesiak did a really good job here with those kids. I want to bring back some of that history to help this future generation here to say, ‘Look at the history of these girls and what they were able to do.’”
Burrus said he wants next year’s seniors to have the best senior year they can have while readying the sophomore class to contribute when the senior class eventually graduates. And he also wants a talented seventh grade class to know who people like Sheila McMillen and Courtney Felke are.
“This is a destination for me,” Burrus said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go. This is where I want to be. This isn't a stopping place. This is a destination. My family’s here. Jackson, our oldest, is going to be in kindergarten next year. I would love to be able to see the second or third-graders … let’s see where they’re at as seniors.
“I want to get a biddy league program established. They haven’t had that here. Get something established for these younger kids. They’re having to go to Plymouth and play at The Zone. I want to get something established right here and start to see that through. I think that’s how you build a successful program.”