This story is about Kenny Ubelaker and the Winning Habits that have made him a successful athlete, coach and father. I have known Kenny since we were young competitors and I can attest to his willingness to always compete to win every time he stepped on the field or court. He remains a champion in my book because he helped others and taught them about “Finding A Champion Within” in their lives through 37 years of coaching and teaching to help create champions in the classroom, championship teams, and most importantly champions in life!
Using Stats to Improve Your Abilities
I don’t know exactly at what age I became interested in sports, but as a small child, I remember playing lots of games such as Monopoly, cards, etc. I even set up a trash can in my bedroom and used a rubber ball as a basketball to shoot. I have also always been fascinated with numbers (stats), so I would keep track of how many shots I made and would always try to do better on the next set of shots that I would take. I watched sports on TV when available, but in those days they only broadcast one baseball game a week, which was on Saturday afternoons, with Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese as the commentators. Sunday afternoons in the fall and early winter, they televised an NFL game. Once in a great while, they would have a double header. My favorite team growing up was the St. Louis Cardinals, which means I hated the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, because they beat my Cardinals most of the time. At that age, I couldn’t appreciate their great coaches, but as I got older and later as a coach, I began to greatly appreciate the attributes and philosophies of Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. I tried to instill some of their philosophies into my coaching.
Never Enjoy Losing
I grew up on a farm three miles west of Osborne and attended a two-room country school in Bloomington through the sixth grade. We played all kinds of games before and after school and during recess, such as softball, basketball, tag, dasher, kick the can and dodge ball.
Two-room schoolhouse in Bloomington, KS
During the spring, we practiced some track events, as all the country schools in the county had an annual track meet. During the winter, we played fox and geese, built some great snow forts and had lots of snow ball fights. Most of the kids, no matter what age, played together so the older kids could run faster, hit farther, so I always tried to compete against them the best I could. I HATED LOSING. I have never been a good loser, but I also think that to be good in sports, you can’t like to lose.
Practice & Compete as Hard as You Can AT ALL TIMES!!!
At home, my brother Doug (who was four years older than me) and I played lots of games. We played baseball all summer long. We got our chores done as quickly as possible, so we could play baseball all day. It didn’t matter how hot or windy, we played. We would pick Major League players to be on our team and make batting orders. We batted left or right handed depending on the player, so both of us were switch hitters. We had ghost runners and made rules that made it possible to play with just the two of us. We had distances that determined whether it was a double, triple, or home run. We also played some basketball games during the winter, but not as much as baseball in the summer. I think that is why baseball became my favorite sport growing up. I liked all sports, but baseball was my favorite. My heroes growing up were Bob Gibson, Don Drysdale, Mickey Mantle (and I hated the Yankees) and Pete Rose. It makes me sad to not see Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame. He made some poor decisions later in life, but he played the game the way it was supposed to be played. HARD AT ALL TIMES!!!! That is one of the things that a kid has to do to be a success. They have to practice and play hard all the time and that is not always easy to do. The important thing is to go out and play. Find someone to play with and make up whatever rules you need to be able to play. I didn’t beat my brother very often but when I did, the feeling was like winning a championship!!!
Talent + Practice & Practice & More Practice = Success
Kenny’s Senior year in Basketball
I also played games by myself. I shot thousands of shots in basketball by myself on our goal each winter. We had a dirt area where we played and I shoveled that area a lot in the winter, but that’s what I had to do to play. If you can imagine, I even played games against myself. I would be both teams, and of course, sometimes I had to take a last second shot to be the hero. But all that shooting helped me to be successful in junior high and high school basketball. A good friend of mine, Alan Burch and I sure wish there had been a three point line in basketball when we played. It sure would have helped our averages. My career high for points in a game was 30. In the fall, I kicked the football around a lot. We had a gate in the yard and I would set the ball on the tee and kick field goals over the two posts of the gate. We had an alfalfa field and I would start in the middle and punt the ball in one direction, go get the ball, and then punt back the other direction. I had goal lines on both ends and when I kicked it over one of the goals, it would be a score, and then I would start the whole process over again. I did this most nights until dark. Again, it doesn’t sound like much fun, but it was and it helped me. When I got older, I was the varsity kicker all four years of my high school career. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to practice and practice to be good at something. It means you have to sacrifice other things to have the time to do that. I didn’t watch a lot of TV in those days because I enjoyed sports more.
Kenny and his older brother Doug, who was a great role model who pushed Kenny to be a champion
My first organized sports came when I was 11 years old. My friend’s mother talked my Mom into letting me play Pee Wee baseball in town. They lived on a farm west of us, so she would pick me up on the way to town to go to practice. I absolutely loved playing baseball in town. And I got to play with kids my own age instead of my brother who was four years older. But all those years of playing against my brother made me a better player. I had a strong arm from all that throwing during those past summers and I ended up being a pitcher. I loved pitching and especially striking batters out. And, of course, no hitters were pretty awesome. And no pitcher I faced as a batter threw as hard as my brother, so I was a pretty good hitter throughout my career. To get better at something, you have to face some better competition, and I had that growing up. I would have to thank him for making me the baseball player I turned out to be.
Winning a State Championship at the Age of 15
State Championship team (Kenny is first player to the right of player holding trophy)
When I reached junior high, I competed in all the sports I could. I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter and track in the spring. I liked all the sports and had a lot of success in all of them. All that kicking and shooting baskets when I was younger paid off as I got older. I also had good speed, so obviously that helped in all sports. And I still played baseball in the summer. After Pee Wee baseball was K-18 baseball (which was 13-15 year olds). When I was 15, we won a State Championship. What a great thrill! My 1st State Championship! And I was the leading hitter of the tourney. Thanks again to my older brother.
It Takes Sacrifice and Heart to Be Truly Good at Something
Kenny’s Senior year in track and football – Hard work always pay off!
In high school, I participated in football, basketball and track. In track, besides running, I threw the javelin. I remember the first day of practice, the coach wanted to know what I wanted to try for a field event. I told him I wanted to throw the javelin because I had a pretty good arm and he kind of laughed and said it wasn’t like throwing a baseball. Well, being as competitive as I was, I set out to be a great thrower to prove him wrong. I never liked anyone telling me I couldn’t do something. Later, I wondered if he did that on purpose or not, but I never asked him. Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something as an athlete or person. Do what you can to make your dreams come true.
As an underclassman, my goal was to beat the older kids. I wanted to be good even though they were older than me. As a sophomore I placed 4th at the State meet in the javelin. The next year I broke the school record with a throw of 198’10” so all the hard work paid off. I know I made thousands of throws in practice in high school and worked on the technique diligently to get as good as I could. As a senior, I was 5’8” and weighed 160 lbs., so I loved beating all those kids that were “bigger and stronger” than me. It’s not about your physical size, but the size of your heart. I also loved playing football and basketball in high school and we had some good teams. Those experiences created some great memories for me and I was fortunate to have some great teammates.
Sometimes You Face Hardships in Life
My biggest disappointment in high school, and I guess in my life to that point, came during my senior year. I broke my ankle in the second game of the football season. We had a pretty good team but we had a rash of injuries, so things fell apart quickly. I learned from breaking my ankle that I should not take anything for granted. It can all end pretty quickly. And that was something I always stressed to the athletes that I coached. Always work hard and enjoy it, because it can all end in an instant.
I remember the next week’s game. Our team lost a close game and I remember crying after the game, because I could not play and be a part of the team on the field. I thought I had let them down. But as you go through life, hardships are going to happen. How are you going to handle those hardships? You really only have two choices. You can buckle down and work as hard as you can to get through it or you can feel sorry for yourself and let life beat you up. You have to decide which way you go. As I got older, I realized that there were worse things in life than breaking your ankle and not being able to play football. Some kids have terminal illnesses, lose parents at any early age, or they didn’t have the opportunities that I had in life. There’s always someone out there in life that has it tougher than you do.
Make the Most of Every Practice! It’s Not Over-Rated!
I lettered in 11 of 12 varsity sports seasons in high school, and I’m proud of that, but probably the thing I’m most proud of from high school is that I was at practice all the time. I only missed ONE practice in four years (aside from other school activities) because I was sick and my Mom called the coach and he wouldn’t let me come to practice. To be good at something, you have to practice. You can’t pick and choose when you want to practice. Sometimes, you may not feel like practicing but you have an obligation to yourself and your teammates to be there. Practice may not make you perfect, but it gives you the opportunity to get there. Make the most of practice. Believe me, it is not over-rated. Games are won in practice.
Listen to Good Leaders, Then Lead Others
Summers during high school meant baseball. I loved the game and it turned out to be good for me, too. The highlight of my American Legion baseball years was throwing back to back no-hitters during my first season and being selected to play in the Kansas East-West All Star Games. One other memory from Legion baseball comes to mind that taught me a very good lesson. I was pitching, the batter had a full count, there were two outs, and the bases were loaded early in the game. I had a good fastball and wanted to throw that. The catcher, Scott Noel who was two years older than me wanted me to throw a change-up. I shook him off twice and finally he comes to the mound. He said the batter loved fastballs and I needed to throw a change-up. Just listen to him. Fortunately, I listened to him and struck the batter out. Listen to the good leaders in your life and be a good leader to those around you, especially to the younger players on the team. Be a good example in your work ethic and earn the respect of your teammates. Treat them with respect. That gives a team an opportunity to be great.
Sometimes You Have to Pay Your Dues
Kenny pitching at Fort Hays State University during his Senior season
Following high school, I attended Fort Hays State University and I played baseball. I was one of a few kids from a small town that didn’t play high school baseball. I felt like I had to prove myself all over again. I worked as hard as I could in practice and even did extra running and other things to prove myself, but it didn’t seem to matter. I didn’t get to play much my freshman year. I only pitched 8 2/3 innings after being used to playing all the time in Legion baseball. There were times I was pretty discouraged and at one point wondered whether it was all worth it or not. I wondered if the coaches even noticed me. It didn’t matter to me that most of the kids pitching were juniors and seniors and I had to work my way up the ranks. My sophomore year didn’t go much better, but I knew the following year I would probably get a better opportunity, so I stuck with it and kept working hard. And I’m glad I did. I went 8-3 as a junior and as a senior broke the school record for wins at 11-2 and had an ERA of 1.05 which was also a school record. I was All-Conference and All-District my last two years. None of that would have happened if I had given up. Make sure that you give something your best shot before you decide to try something else.
Named an Academic All-American in College
First team Academic All-American Award
But as great as things went on the baseball field, my biggest highlight in college athletics came after I graduated with an Education degree in History. I was named 1 of 2 pitchers on the First team Academic All-American team. Wow, what a feeling! The bottom line is that you can play sports and still be a great student. Work as hard in the classroom, as you do on the field or court. For most people, your education is going to take you further than your sports ability. An education is not going to guarantee you success or money in life, but it will give you the opportunity for that.
“TO THOSE THAT WORK HARD, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN!”
After graduating from college, I began my teaching career at Courtland High School, a small high school in north central Kansas. That was also the beginning of my coaching career. I coached volleyball, basketball and track. I had never seen a volleyball match until the first one I coached in. I attended a clinic in the summer to learn the fundamentals and that is what I taught that team. We went 17-4 that year and just missed the State Tourney. In track, my biggest thrill was coaching my first State Champion in the javelin. After a couple of years at Courtland High School, I had the opportunity to come back to my home town and become a teacher and coach. What a great thrill for me!!! My dream had always been to come back to teach and coach in Osborne. Don’t tell me dreams don’t come true because I am living proof they do. Dare to dream about what you want to accomplish in sports and in life. And then go out and make that dream come true.
Kenny receiving the first of his three Track Coach of the Year awards
I taught in the Osborne schools for 33 years. I was able to continue coaching for two more years after I retired from teaching for a total of 37 years of coaching. I coached about every sport you could, football, basketball and track at the junior high level, as well as, football, volleyball, basketball and track at the high school level. I have also coached baseball in the summertime all the way from Pee Wee baseball to American Legion baseball. My motto in sports and life has always been, “TO THOSE THAT WORK HARD, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN!” I firmly believe that if a person works hard and does what he or she if supposed to do, things will work out. That goes for the classroom as well.
Mastering the Fundamentals
To have a chance to be successful in any sport, I believe that a person has to be good at the fundamentals of that sport or game. That was always a big part of any of the sports programs that I coached: the athletes had to be fundamentally sound. We spent a lot of time in every practice on the fundamentals of the game. To get better at the fundamentals, you have to work at it diligently and do things over and over until you accomplish it. Some athletes think this is boring. But think about, how can a team be good in football if they can’t block and tackle? In volleyball, there is bump, set and spike, or in basketball there is dribbling, passing, pivoting and shooting. Have great practice attendance. You can’t be as good as you could be if you are not there. You have to make sacrifices in order to be good at something. Growing up, we did not have a lot of information available to us about nutrition and competition like today. Eat healthy and get plenty of sleep. I never drank any alcohol or pop while participating in a sport. You have to want to get better at what you are doing in order to be the very best you can be. Over the years, I heard a lot of athletes say how much they wanted to be great, but their work habits didn’t show it. The kids who really wanted to be great had great work habits.
Work Ethic Can Beat Talent
I was lucky enough to work with some of the greatest athletes ever. I was fortunate to be a part of State Championship teams in my coaching career. We won numerous league, regional, and sub-state championships. I had numerous individual and relay State Champions in track. I have won different coaching honors and in order for all that to happen, I had to have athletes that were dedicated to the same goals as I was. Set goals and go after them. But don’t make your goals easy. The only reward for accomplishing something easy is that it was easy. Set your goals high but not impossible. And when you reach them, you will have a great deal of satisfaction. Then, reset your goals to get to the next level. Not every kid is going to be a great athlete, but with a lot of effort, you can still accomplish a lot. I had kids that never placed in an event in track and yet they came out for four years. How easy it would have been for them to have quit because they weren’t very good. I really admire those kids and if they take that same attitude to work with them the rest of their lives, they will have a chance to be successful.
How Do You Avoid Regret? Do Your Best Every Day!
Make the most of every opportunity you are given to play sports. Don’t take a sport for granted. As what happened to me, you may suffer an injury that ends your season or worse yet, your career. Practice each day and play each game as if it will be your last. For most athletes, when they graduate from high school, it is over. A small percentage will have the opportunity to play college athletics. I’ve had lots of kids tell me years later they wish they would have practiced harder so they could have been better athletes when played sports. Don’t live your life with regrets, whether it is in sports, or your education, or your job. Do the best you can do every day, and that is all your coach or boss can ask. And you will feel good about yourself knowing you gave it your all.
Winning Habits Lead to Success
Left to right: Brooke, Shari, Kenny, Karie and Kenton
We have three kids of our own that played sports as long as the opportunity presented itself. I tried to stress to all of them the importance of hard work to get better. Remember, “TO THOSE THAT WORK HARD, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN!” They would need to put in the practice time it would take to get better, which means they would have to sacrifice something else to find that time.
Brooke started all 134 games of her career at Washburn University
My oldest daughter Brooke was a part of State Champion teams in basketball her freshman (2000) and junior (2002) years of high school at Osborne. They were runner-up her sophomore (2001) and senior (2003) years. She was part of a 51 game winning streak. Brooke was named All League all four years and she was named on the All-State and All Class teams for three years, and was named Miss Kansas Basketball following her senior year in 2005. At the time she graduated, she was 7th on the all time Kansas scoring list. In track, Osborne won State Championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002 and runner-up in 2003. She won three State Discus titles in 2001, 2002 and 2003, as well as running on State Champion 4 X 800 relay teams. She was also Co-Valedictorian of her class.
Brooke played basketball at Washburn University (NCAA Division II) and was a part of a National Championship team in 2005. She was a part of Washburn’s 51 game winning streak, which is still the NCAA Division II record. She finished her career as the 3rd leading scorer and 5th leading rebounder. She also made the most 3-pointers for a career in Washburn history. She was named All Conference three years and was twice named an All-American. She started all 134 games of her college career.
Karie shooting in the NAIA National Tourney (2009)
Our daughter Karie played on the State Champion basketball team in 2002 with her sister Brooke at Osborne, and was a part of the state runner-up team in 2003. She was named to the All League team three times and All State teams twice. Karie also was involved in volleyball and track. She was named Salutatorian of her high school class. Karie played college basketball at Sterling College (NAIA) and played on teams that won four straight Conference Championships from 2007-2010.
They were in the Conference tournament championship game in those same years winning in 2008 and 2010. Those teams also played in the NAIA National Tourney all four years.
Son Kenton is a starting wide receiver at Fort Hays State University
Our son Kenton competed in football, basketball and track all four years in high school. He played on a State Championship football team in 2013. Kenton received numerous All State, District, and All League honors his junior (2012) and senior (2013) years. He was named the 8-man Player of the Year his senior year. In track, he was also on the 4 X 100 and 4 X 400 State Champion relay teams his sophomore and senior seasons. He was on the honor roll all four years of high school ranking in the top 5 of his class. He always loved football, and wanted to play college football. He went to Fort Hays State University (NCAA Division II) to continue playing. Our high school played 8-man football, so some people said he probably wouldn’t have much of a chance to play in college. He red-shirted his first year (2014) and as a red-shirt freshman he got a lot of playing time at wide receiver and special teams. He is currently a member of the 2016 Tiger football team. He plays with a lot of heart and grittiness, and don’t underestimate those attributes in an athlete.
Sports Should Be Fun…Enjoy Yourself
Don’t forget to have fun while participating in sports. With so much emphasis on winning these days, it is easy to forget why we do this in the first place. If you don’t have some fun and enjoyment out of what you are doing, then why do it? This is a place where you can work hard, compete hard, and still have fun. I have never done drugs in my life, but I can’t imagine any feeling is better than when we won State Championships, or when I had an athlete accomplish something they had never accomplished before.
And I must thank my wife Shari for letting me do what I loved doing all these years. She made a lot of sacrifices, took care of the kids and ran the household when I wasn’t around because of practices, games, film sessions, coaches’ meetings, etc.
Kenny and his wonderful wife Shari who has been his best friend and supporter over the years
I also had the opportunity of not only working with great athletes but with other great coaches. Be sure to thank those people around you that helped make it possible for you to pursue your dreams. You owe it to them to work hard and be the best you can be, as they are making sacrifices that allow you to be the best at whatever you do. Don’t waste your God-given abilities you have been blessed with, whether it is in sports or in your life. Remember, there are others out there that don’t have the abilities you have that would give anything to have them.
I hope you enjoyed reading about Kenny and his many achievements. He’s always been a focused athlete, coach and teacher with determination to be the very best he can be. That’s a lesson in goal-setting and persistence that every young person should learn. “NEVER GIVE UP!”