Steamboat Springs There are a few words that have held strong in Mike Vandahl’s basketball life.
Words like “hard worker, toughness and dedication” followed Vandahl through his record-breaking Steamboat Springs High School career. Those words weren’t forgotten after his 2008 high school graduation and during his transitions through three different college programs, either.
After playing at the University of Denver, Nebraska-Kearney and graduating from Western State, Vandahl is back in Steamboat, this time prowling the Sailors’ bench as an assistant varsity coach.
It took months of prodding from Sailors head coach Luke DeWolfe to get the former Steamboat standout to commit. He did, and DeWolfe couldn’t be happier to have him.
“I always thought I could be a coach,” Vandahl said after the season’s first Friday practice. “I know the game. I’ve played for a long time, maybe 10 or 11 years now. I’ve been to three different colleges and seen a lot of different systems. I’ve kind of been around the block, so to speak.”
And it shows — in the clothes Vandahl sports at practice and in his demeanor among Steamboat’s 12 varsity players.
Vandahl wears a Western State warm-up top, where he finished his college career under Kelly Meek, his former Steamboat coach. Embroidered on his grey sweatpants is a Denver Pioneers logo, where he opened his collegiate basketball life.
And as he runs current Sailors through a series of drills, Vandahl barks out familiar coaching terminology, like “Hustle! Run! Fight through it!” He even threatens those lagging behind with wind sprints and leads the post-drill huddle, before DeWolfe utters a word.
It’s his third day as a coach, and he’s definitely not shy.
“He’s very quiet and doesn’t stand out talking-wise in a crowd,” Meek said. “But when he’s in action, he’s passionate … He is absolutely fearless.”
A relentless work ethic
Vandahl is going to need that fearlessness in his first coaching gig, Meek said.
When Vandahl was a high school freshman practicing with the Steamboat varsity squad, getting the kid to communicate verbally was “like pulling teeth,” his former coach added.
But that communication developed steadily throughout time, and the coach-player relationship blossomed. Any time of day Vandahl wanted to get on the court and work on his game, Meek was there to open the gym.
It’s Vandahl’s quiet strengths, like his work ethic, that already are being felt in Steamboat’s early season practices.
“He’s bringing this college mentality of working hard,” said senior guard Carter Kounovsky, who grew up watching Vandahl’s league champion Sailors teams. “Hopefully, we’ll start playing like he did. He’s definitely someone to look up to.”
Reminiscent of the Meek-Vandahl days, Steamboat’s newest coach opened the gym doors for a shoot-around Saturday morning, something he had done all summer since his college graduation.
At Western State, Vandahl was somewhat forced into being a point guard, even though Meek said Vandahl's natural ability was an off-the-ball shooter.
So Vandahl worked at it the only way he knew how: relentlessly. It was an unnatural perspective for the player, a lot like his new role as coach may feel with a whistle and clipboard in hand, Meek said.
“It’s going to be a big learning curve,” Meek said. “It’s way different from playing. I told him many times, 'You’re going to be shocked.’
“But I think he will be very good at it.”
Holding them accountable
As a high school junior and senior, Vandahl mastered 64 offensive sets drawn up by Meek.
Vandahl played with an attitude that largely was unparalleled by his opponents. It’s this sureness, Meek said, that his former Western State teammates miss as they open up their 2013-14 season.
The Sailors have a season of their own ahead, and with Vandahl — a Sailors legend, Kounovsky insisted — they are hoping some of that attitude will rub off onto them.
Meek has no doubt.
“He will hold them very accountable,” Meek said. “He doesn’t cut corners. Those kids will know exactly where he’s coming from, and he will do it with a big heart.”
DeWolfe said the addition of Vandahl is a “breath of fresh air” and a paradigm shift to his old-school, business-like approach to the game.
The sixth-year Steamboat coach is hoping Vandahl’s presence will help the Sailors avoid another early exit from the state playoffs.
Only two seniors graduated out of the Sailors program. Back on campus is a ton of experience, and of course, that Steamboat legend Kounovsky spoke of.
It’s going to be a collective effort this season. DeWolfe knows it, the players know it, and most of all, Vandahl knows it.
“He’s here for the right reasons,” DeWolfe said. “His motivation is all about the kids. It’s not all about him. He understands he has a lot to offer and give back to our school. We’re lucky.”
To reach Ben Ingersoll, call 970-871-4204, email bingersoll@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @BenMIngersoll