Eighty-three miles in the morning. Eighty-three miles in the afternoon.
For James Ellis, 52, the drive from Days Creek to Elkton and back has become part of his daily commute. A time to listen to a variety of music, maybe throw on a podcast and probably do some thinking.
“Sometimes I don’t listen to anything. Just unwind and think or prepare my mind for what I’ve got to do,” said Ellis while sitting in his office in Elkton last week. In his first year on the job at Elkton, he works at the high school as both principal and athletic director — not exactly an uncommon pairing of jobs at the 1A level. But what is uncommon is that Ellis is also the head boys’ basketball coach at Days Creek — a school in the same league as Elkton — in a position he has held for the last 27 years.
Entering the season, Ellis had plenty of questions and concerns about what could go wrong as he tried to juggle these responsibilities. But through plenty of hours logged on the road, community support from both schools and a tenacious basketball team, Ellis turned his busy year into one of the most successful seasons in school history.
Current Days Creek athletic director Ron Dunn first learned of James Ellis in the fall of 1982. Dunn had just started his first year at the school where he was the boys’ basketball coach. School was just about to start for the year and a student told him some bad news about a junior on the basketball team who was hurt playing football.
“Somebody told me, ‘Mr. Dunn, you’re going to be sick…one of your best players broke his leg,’” remembers Dunn nearly 40 years later. “Sometime in that first week of school here comes that little blonde-haired kid with crutches and a big ol’ cast on his leg.” The pair began a lifelong friendship in that first year which was aided by Ellis who regularly bought Dunn ice cream from the student store.
After graduation the two remained close as Dunn encouraged Ellis to get into education and then eventually helped him get a job at Days Creek. Ellis entered the coaching world of Days Creek as an assistant football and track and field coach at the high school in addition to coaching middle school basketball. In 1992 he took the position of head boys basketball coach.
Ellis got comfortable in the position and before long had coached the team to one of its best finishes in school history as the team placed second in state in both 2000 and 2001. Since Ellis has been at Days Creek, the Wolves have made it to the quarterfinals of the state tournament 11 times (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017, 2019). While the team maintained a high level of success on the court, off the court Ellis began working on getting his administrative license.
In the winter of 2018, Ellis was approached by Elkton about the possibility of taking the role of principal. Flattered by being considered, Ellis initially brushed it aside saying the timing wasn’t right and that maybe in the future he would consider. After nearly three decades as head basketball coach at Days Creek, Ellis was not going to leave during his son’s — Skyline player of the year Blake Ellis — senior season. Those at Elkton were insistent that he was the one for the job and after going through the interview process and discussing logistics, an agreement was met: Ellis would be principal and athletic director at Elkton while still coaching at Days Creek.
“I had my concerns at the beginning, but I will tell you… the staff members at both schools allowed this to work pretty seamlessly,” said Ellis. “I kept saying, there are going to be problems that arise that I can’t even imagine. But those were minimal.”
In Elkton, there was an understanding that Ellis would leave school an hour or two early while making up hours on Fridays throughout the year. In Days Creek, he had assistant coaches in place that were ready in the off-chance he had to stay late. The closest thing to a problem came when discussing upcoming schedules.
“I had a whole conversation with an athletic director from another school and I thought he was talking about Elkton and I was like, ‘Well, this won’t work in our schedule.’ And halfway through our conversation he goes, ‘I’m talking about Days Creek,’” said Ellis. “That was difficult. So, I have to be really careful.”
Ultimately, things went off seemingly without a hitch throughout the year. For Days Creek athletic director Dunn, any challenges were well worth it in order to preserve the continuity of Ellis’ coaching career.
“That’s probably the most important thing: continuity and coaching. Especially if you get a good coach. People jump around so much at the smaller schools. So, when you get quality and you get, in my case, I call it an investment. Stakeholders in the process,” said Dunn.
It was not a forgone conclusion that this Days Creek team was going to be a title contender this season. In the first league game of the year, North Douglas beat Days Creek by 21 points and the team moved to 6-5 on the young season. From that point on, the team rallied off 16 straight wins, a school record, and did not lose until the state semifinals.
This group that Ellis had made sure he was going to stick around for was suddenly clicking. This three-point dependent side that features no one over 6-foot-2 had the mentality of “Why not us?” in a wide-open 1A race.
“I honestly, have never had a team like this. I’ve had some pretty good kids, I’ve always had good kids, but I’ve never had a team that was this unselfish,” said Ellis. “They just wanted to win. And they never gave up, they never quit.”
Included in that run of successful wins was the game that Ellis was especially worried about. Worried not about how his team will play but on how people would respond. He was worried about coaching against Elkton.
“I was really concerned because you build relationships with these kids here. I was really concerned about what they would feel like. I was worried about what the community would feel like — but I got no negative backlash whatsoever,” said Ellis who felt a wave of relief when a pair of Elkton players high-fived him during pregame warm-ups. Once the game started it was business as usual as the Wolves rolled to victories in both meetings.
At the state tournament this season, the Wolves, the No. 7 seed, were part of a string of upsets in the quarterfinals that saw the top four seeds all sent to the consolation bracket. Against Trinity Lutheran in the semifinals, the team lost by 13 but trailed by 3 with three minutes left in the game.
“We had to gamble a little bit down the stretch, and they hurt us when we trapped and got some easy buckets, but that’s what happens. You either get the ball back or you give up some points. So, you know, that was disappointing. But I think I’m most proud of my kids for having lost that game and having come back the next day,” said Ellis as his team scored a 56-53 victory over Prairie City to claim third place in state.
With the season wrapped up, Ellis’ schedule becomes a little more open as the spring sports season begins and he has no practices to rush off to or games to coach. But now the question for Ellis is whether that becomes his new reality. Entering the basketball season, he had his eyes set on this being his last year as head coach but staring that prospect in the face is more difficult than he imagined.
“I really thought that this would be it for me. In my mind, my son is done, I’ve taken on a new job, I’ve moved on to a new chapter in my life and I would be done coaching. And it would be easy,” said Ellis. “That has not proven to be true and it is far from being easy. I’ve learned that, and I knew I loved these kids already and I’ve known them forever, but it’s going to be hard for me to walk away.”