Shane Schmeling and Mark Wagner go way back. From playing against each other in high school, to being teammates and roommates in college, to being the best man at each other's weddings and now finally coaching together this season — it's been quite the journey. And basketball has been at the center of so much of it along the way.
It all started when they played against one another during their high school basketball careers in the Coulee Conference. Schmeling played at Holmen and was a year older than Wagner, who played for Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau.
In college, both Wagner and Schmeling played basketball at Western Technical College under former Arcadia head coach Bob Parker. Schmeling and Wagner lived together during their college days in what became the start of a decades-long friendship that lasts to this day.
"I played at Western for two years with Mark and we lived together. Our paths took us separate directions after we were done playing there. We ended up being real close, real tight. We ended up being best man at each other's weddings," Schmeling said. "We just kinda always stayed in touch and he moved back to the area when he took the G-E-T job almost 20 years ago. I went down to a lot of his games and that kinda thing. We play a little bit of golf in the summer and remained real close friends for, well it's been probably pushing 40 years now."
Schmeling has been coaching basketball in various capacities for over 30 years now, though his high school head coaching career began with a five-year stint at the helm of the Bangor varsity girls' basketball team from 1993 to 1998 — a run that included the Cardinals winning the Division 4 state championship in 1997.
He later became the head coach of the Onalaska girls in 2017 and remained in that role for five seasons, including a state tournament appearance as part of the Division 2 field in 2021.
Wagner moved away from the area for about 20 years, but eventually moved back and served 15 years as the head boys' basketball coach at his alma mater Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau, where he helped guide the Red Hawks to the state tournament in 2012 and 2016.
After stepping away from that position in 2018, Wagner became the head coach of the West Salem boys in 2021 and the Panthers finished as the Division 3 state runner-up in his first season.
That 2021-22 season was Schmeling's last at Onalaska as he stepped down following the graduation of his youngest daughter, Devyn. Given his passion for basketball, Schmeling knew that was unlikely to be the end of his coaching career, and another opportunity soon presented itself courtesy of his lifelong friend.
Wagner immediately knew he wanted Schmeling as part of his staff for the 2022-23 season. Though Schmeling was unsure at first, he ultimately agreed to come aboard as a volunteer assistant.
"We knew we wanted him on our staff right away. It was just a matter of if it was the right situation for him," Wagner said. "As the end of the summer played out, we talked more and more, we felt like it was a good situation and it worked out."
Both Wagner and Schmeling share similar defensive approaches that try to create havoc and turnovers by the opposition with man-to-man defense, trapping and pressure. Because of that, Wagner tasked Schmeling with being in charge of the team's defense.
Wagner praised Schmeling's basketball acumen and ability to connect with kids, and felt he fit seamlessly into the program. But more than all that, Wagner is thankful he had this opportunity to spend time with one of his best friends through the sport they both love so much.
"It meant a lot to me. It kinda allowed us to reconnect, I would say. We've been friends and we stayed in touch throughout the years, but of course as you get older — and I moved away for 20 years — we both developed families and spent a majority of our time with our families and our kids and our wives," Wagner said. "Although we stayed in touch, we probably didn't see each other very often. This allowed us to kinda rekindle our friendship and it was just awesome having him in the gym every day and seeing him every day."
West Salem made it back to the state tournament this winter for a second straight season, finishing as Division 3 state runner-up again. Though the Panthers fell just short of the ultimate goal, it was a memorable run for the two friends and basketball fanatics to share with the other coaches and the players.
Schmeling is unsure yet if he'll be back in this role for West Salem or doing something else next winter, though Wagner made it clear he's welcome back if he wants and that he'd fully support whatever decision Schmeling makes for his next step in his coaching career. But no matter what the future holds, Schmeling is thankful he got at least this year to coach at West Salem.
"It was fun to show up and be around kids that were just as dedicated a group as I've ever been around. A bunch of gym rats — after practice was over every night, you literally had to kick them out after a while. They wouldn't go home, they just wanted to stay and shoot," Schmeling said. "I'm glad I did it. For being a little bit apprehensive going into it, in hindsight, I'm very glad I did it."
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here