GROVE CITY – After years of waiting, Dennis Ranker is getting the opportunity to run his own basketball program.
Grove City Area School District hired the long-time assistant to be its new girls’ basketball coach during the recent board meeting. He replaces Chris Burtch, who retired earlier this year.
“I’m incredibly excited … this is something that I knew would happen eventually. I think it’s going to be a great fit,” said Ranker, who served as Burtch’s top assistant this past winter after taking a sabbatical from coaching for several years due to family priorities.
Despite the loss of 1,000-point scorers Clara Hannon and Becca Santom and Alli Lewis to graduation, Ranker inherits a team just a season removed from the program’s first District 10 championship since 1993 and returns two multi-year starters in rising seniors Hannah Reiber and Emma Santom. Also, a handful of key reserves off the bench, who will be elevated in bigger roles for the 2021-22 season and beyond.
“I have an incredible group of girls to work with,” Ranker said. “There’s a good feeling in the gym and it’s an exciting time. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to continue to work with the girls.
“We’ve been going full-speed since mid-April. I’ve been running the ship for two months now. We’ve been in the gym a lot and it’s been a great experience so far. The girls were really supportive (prior to his hiring) – they were assertive in letting me know that they wanted me to apply, which meant the world to me. I wanted to apply, but having some leaders be pretty direct with me about it that even if I had any reservations about (applying) would’ve told me all I needed to know about their feelings.”
The transition from Burtch to Ranker should be relatively smooth for all involved.
“No question about it, I think (having served as Burtch’s assistant coach) makes it easier,” Ranker said. “Going from an assistant coach to the head coach also presents some challenges as well, because I was only there for one year. I wasn’t (coaching during the entirety of Burtch’s tenure) helping implement his style and the things he taught. I have a ton of respect for what Coach Burtch did, but we’ll do some things differently.
“Nonetheless, it’s still going to be a relatively easy transition and a lot of that comes from me being a teacher in the building. Building relationships with the players off the court is something I think is an asset,” related Ranker, who plans to be flexible offensively– opting to build his offenses around the players at his disposal. But he also wants to employ a high-octane man-to-man defense.
“Offensively, I want to put the kids in position to succeed,” he said. “Ultimately, your personnel determines what you do and we’re really fortunate to have several players that are interchangeable in a lot of ways. So we’ll look to push the tempo and be very assertive offensively. I want the girls to have the freedom to just play the game. We’ll put the ball in their hands and let them make a play without micromanaging them.
“There’s an old adage that says ‘Don’t teach players plays; teach players how to play.’
That’s really the offensive philosophy and we’ll expand on that this summer,” Ranker continued. “Certainly, there’ll be some motion principles in what we do, but read and react will be a part of that, as well. At the end of the day, I want the kids to have the freedom to create and assert themselves offensively.
“Defensively, we want to play good man-to-man defense and dictate the other teams’ decisions. The best way to put it is we want to be the ones making decisions. We don’t want to sit back on our heels, so we’ll want to get out and pressure the basketball.”
Ranker served as one of legendary Grove City boys’ basketball head coach Don Fee’s top lieutenants in 2003. But the Seneca Valley High and University of Pittsburgh graduate coached at the elementary and junior high levels in Seneca Valley’s program in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
“I’ve been a basketball coach forever,” Ranker said. “I literally coached my first basketball team the week after I graduated high school and have been involved at various different levels over the years. I was a scout for Seneca Valley, and in ‘03 came in at the high school level with Don.”
But after nearly a decade assisting Fee, Ranker chose to step away from coaching for a better gig at home with his wife Molly – being a father to four children – before returning to the bench this past winter with Burtch.
“You hear about coaches missing it and that (desire to coach) never goes away,” Ranker said. “I can confirm that. But we were having our second child and I didn’t want to miss any of those moments. Another reason I didn’t get back into it sooner was my mom (Sue) was sick for about five years. She was my biggest supporter and was the best human being I’ve ever met.
“I didn’t want to have a commitment where I couldn’t be present for her when she needed me. I didn’t want to be in a position where I felt torn between family and basketball,” Ranker related. “Unfortunately, my mom passed away in December 2019. The calendar turned to 2020 and we were still grieving. When the pandemic hit, I had a lot of talks with my wife about whether coaching again would work. She told me to give it a shot and see what it was like for a year. That’s how I got back into it with Chris. I told him this was a one-year deal and not a commitment for 10 years.
“It went a lot better for our family dynamic than we thought it would. It really was manageable. We were really efficient with my time. If I had to say I had a strength, it would be that I’m efficient and organized. That’s the approach we’re going to take in regards to my family and I think we’re going to be fine,” forecasted Ranker, who intends to stay on as GC boys’ golf coach.
“I think it’ll work out pretty smoothly,” he said. “It’s a sprint of a season from mid-August to – if you’re fortunate – mid-October. That’s a relatively dormant time for the basketball program and something we can handle pretty smoothly.”