During the first half of the DeLaSalle boys basketball team’s season opener on Saturday, the coach of the top-ranked team in Class 3A crouched low on the sideline and hollered at his players: “Get on the floor! Get on the floor!”
For the past 23 years, the booming voice on the bench belonged to Dave Thorson, who led the Islanders to nine state championships, including the last six in a row. Thorson departed after last season to become an assistant coach at Drake University, and the new man in charge is Travis Bledsoe, 30, who played for Thorson at DeLaSalle.
“Trav’s an Islander and I love him and he’s my guy. He’s awesome,” Thorson said in a phone interview the day after DeLaSalle lost to Iowa City West 65-62 in the Breakdown Tip-Off Classic at Hopkins High School. Thorson and the Drake Bulldogs had just returned home to Des Moines, Iowa, after a double-overtime loss at Wyoming on Saturday, but Thorson remains plugged into his former team.
“There’s no better guy to lead that program than Travis,” Thorson said. “I’m excited for him.”
Bledsoe, a 2005 DeLaSalle graduate, was a first-team all-state player and Mr. Basketball finalist before playing at the University of North Dakota, where he was a team captain. He was the head coach at Centennial for the last three years; his teams had a record of 39-43.
Like everyone else, Bledsoe was stunned when his former coach left DeLaSalle.
“I didn’t believe it. I never thought he was going to leave,” Bledsoe said. “I got a phone call from Dave and he told me the situation. He kind of tapped me on the shoulder and told me I would be great and he would love for me to take over the program.”
DeLaSalle activities director Adam Pribyl said Bledsoe stood out in a group of outstanding candidates.
“Everyone we talked to spoke highly of Travis. He’s a strong teacher, an advocate for the individual skill development of his athletes as well as the personal and spiritual development of young men. He has himself been a stellar high school and collegiate athlete and in that context, fully understands the commitment necessary to achieve excellence.”
Taking over for a longtime successful coach can bring pressure, but Bledsoe said if there is any pressure it’s self-imposed.
“When I started coaching I set high goals. It isn’t so much pressure for me because my whole goal is to try to lead a team to a state championship. I don’t look at it the same way as everybody else. I’m kind of starting new; I’ve got a team and I’ve got an opportunity to do something special. That’s kind of what I focus on more than pressure.”
When Bledsoe talks about what he stresses with his players, it sounds exactly like the kind of teams Thorson put on the court: “It starts with being physical on defense, switching a lot, talking on D and then being patient on offense, moving the ball, screening bodies.
“I think the good thing about it is I played for coach Thorson for four years, my older brother played for him for four years, so I’ve been around the school and the tradition for about 15 strong years. That made it an easier transition to step in and understand what we need to do.”
After losing to Iowa City West, a perennial power in Iowa, the schedule doesn’t get easier for the Islanders. They will play at Hopkins, which is ranked No. 4 in Class 4A, on Saturday at 6 p.m. It will be the second game in Bledsoe’s career as DeLaSalle’s coach, and Thorson’s influence remains strong for him.
“He’s the greatest, he really is,” Bledsoe said. “He really cared about his kids. He was a mentor, a father to a lot of us, we could count on him on and off the court. He still mentors to this day. He raised me into the man I am today.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn