By JIM MISUNAS
WICHITA — Lonnie Kruse started his teaching and coaching career from Holyrood at nearby Ellsworth High School as the boys basketball coach.
A few years later, Kruse weighed a decision whether to coach women’s basketball at Sterling College. Kruse had never coached female basketball players.
“It’s amazing how God leads us in a direction. I never once thought about coaching girls,” he said. “Thirty-three years later, it turned out to be a pretty good marriage.”
Kruse was elected to the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame Sunday after a 33-year coaching career at Sterling College. When Kruse retired after the 2013 season, his record of 706-244 was second among NAIA coaches. He guided Sterling to 16 NAIA National Tournament appearances and 12 KCAC championships. In 2007, Kruse passed University of Kansas coach Marian Washington with a record 561 wins at the women’s collegiate level.
His first game at Sterling College, the Lady Warriors lost by 35 points.
“My first game I coached at Sterling College, I thought I’d be my last one. I thought — what on earth did I get involved in?” Kruse asked. “But we went back to work and got after things. A few weeks later, we beat the fourth-ranked team in the nation. That was a stepping stone to push us in the right direction.”
Kruse rarely featured high scorers, preferring to use balanced scoring and teamwork. Kruse emphasized passing and teamwork, playing basketball the way it’s supposed to be played. He worked with assistant coach Steve Crandall for 30 years.
Kruse’s coaching decision turned out to be blessing when he was a father to four daughters — Lisa, Darci, Stacie and Erin. Kruse coached his four daughters at Sterling College and eventually coached his nieces, a 19-year span where he tutored a player he was related to.
“I had the privilege of having my daughters on our basketball team for 13 straight years,” he said. “I had three nieces who also played basketball for me. It was an amazing journey and an amazing time.”
Kruse’s basketball program was always a family affair where everyone worked together for a common goal. At times, his daughters were competing in junior high, high school and college. Kruse credits his wife, Carol, for keeping everyone on schedule and preparing pregame and postgame meals around the clock.
“I missed some games because of practices when my daughters were participating. I guarantee you, she didn’t miss a game,” he said. “She kept everything together. My family was a big part of this program.”
Kruse’s mother played the role of grandmother to every grandchild and every Sterling College player.
“My mom was our greatest supporter,” he said. “She was proud of every player we had. She loved those girls and loved the team.”
Kruse said he was offered several other coaching jobs, but stayed at Sterling College.
“I had the opportunity to coach guys several times, and I would say, ‘No,’ he said. “It’s easier to coach girls than guys. I loved how hard those girls worked and their value systems. They didn’t have egos. The biggest thing they were concerned about was teamwork. That teamwork led us to our success.”
Kruse said he was fortunate to work with good people who respected his work.
“Sterling College is a great place to coach, a very special place with people who supported our program,” Kruse said. “There was a reason we spent 33 years there coaching. That’s where we wanted to raise our family. I wouldn’t be here without hundreds of people who stood next to me, the coaches and players I recruited. There were a lot of people involved.”