By: Rick Peterson Jr., KSHSAA Covered
ELLIS – Nick Linn saw his life turned upside down nearly two months ago.
The longtime Smith Center girls’ basketball and volleyball coach underwent double bypass heart surgery in January, forcing him to step away from coaching while he recovers.
“For lack of a better word – hell,” Linn said in describing his past couple months away from the sideline. “I can’t stand this.”
Linn’s last game he coached this season was the Lady Red’s double-overtime win at Ellis on Jan. 6.
“That (next) Monday, my life kind of changed,” said Linn, who was back in Ellis on Friday, watching from the stands as Smith Center faced TMP-Marian in the Class 2A sub-state semifinals.
“All along I kept thinking, by this time of year I’m going to try and make it (back to coach). There was no way.”
As hard as it has been on Linn not coaching, he can also rest assured knowing his team remains in good hands.
With longtime assistant Denyse Kattenberg now guiding the team in Linn’s absence, the Lady Red have maintained their winning ways, moving to 19-3 after pulling out a 50-45 win against TMP on Friday. Smith Center will meet Hoxie, a 65-36 winner over Trego, in Saturday’s sub-state title game.
Between her time playing under Linn and coaching alongside him, Kattenberg has spent 20 years with Linn at Smith Center.
“She’s earned it,” Linn said of Kattenberg’s opportunity to lead the program. “She’s spent a lot of year’s joining me – I don’t even want to say watching me, I’m saying joining me. Every time that she has input, I accept it.
“We’re lucky (having Kattenberg and assistant coach Heather Sasse). I’ve got two of the best basketball brains, and volleyball, too. I can sit in the bleachers and not raise my voice, and just watch, and feel pretty good about it.”
Kattenberg admitted taking on all the duties that come with being a head coach was an adjustment, but credited her players for adapting to the situation.
“I miss (Linn) so much,” Kattenberg said. “We just made such a good team.
“When he went down, you know, these girls are just so resilient.”
Coaching is in Kattenberg’s blood.
Her father, Doug Finch, was a longtime successful coach at multiple schools in Kansas. He won a state girls basketball title at Topeka-Hayden and spent 15 years guiding the Salina Central boys basketball team, becoming the program’s winningest coach, before retiring from high school coaching in 2019.
Denyse’s sister, Dayna Finch Weltmer, coached several years as an assistant in NCAA Division I women’s basketball, including stops at her alma-mater Creighton and the University of Nebraska.
Kattenberg’s daughter, Dakota, is one of the Lady Red’s top players, and Denyse has coached several players on the team dating back to when they were in grade school.
“It’s sad that Coach Linn’s not here, but Denyse has done a great job,” said senior guard Maile Hrabe said. “She’s stepped in and done an amazing job.”
Kattenberg said having a tight-knit group has helped the team rally around Linn’s absence.
“These girls are like, ‘Ok, we’re just going to keep fighting for him,’ ” Kattenberg said. “They honestly are the best of friends. They just care for each other. They care for me, being Dakota’s mom and being with them this whole time. I just can’t stress enough how great of group of kids these guys are.”
The Lady Red were dealt another tough blow when senior Gracie Kirchoff missed nearly a month of action with an injury. She returned on the court on Feb. 3.
“I think what helped us the most is we didn’t dwell on it,” Kattenberg said of the adversity. “We were like, ‘It is what it is, and we’re going to keep playing the game that we all love so much. We’re just going to go out and battle and pray for the best and prepare ourselves.’ ”
The same players, with a core group including Kattenberg, Kirchoff, Hrabe, Camryn Hutchinson and Tinley Rentschler, helped Smith Center win a Class 2A volleyball championship in 2021 and finish runner-up last fall. The Lady Red took third place in 2A in basketball last year.
After TMP knotted Friday’s game at 42, Dakota Kattenberg scored the go-ahead basket with just over a minute left and Smith Center later sealed it at the free-throw line to keep its stellar season alive and push its winning streak to eight.
“We know we just have to be positive and keep a positive attitude,” said Hrabe, who averages nearly 18 points per game.
As he works his way down the road to recovery, Linn said he hopes to return to the sideline for one more year. He’s been coaching at Smith Center for more than three-and-a-half decades and has won state titles in both basketball and volleyball. He hit the 1,000-win milestone in volleyball last fall.
“It’s going to take a while to recuperate, but I’m doing rehab right now,” Linn said. “I’m getting through it. I just didn’t think it would be me – I think we all feel that way. I guess all that bad food I ate and all that pop I drank, and high blood pressure … I blame most of that on my players, the stress,” Linn joked. “I tell that to them and chuckle and say, ‘I’m just kidding.’ ”
Friday was the second time Linn’s watched a Lady Red game in person since surgery.
“No matter how that game went today, I was tickled for my coaching staff and tickled for my players,” Linn said.