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In leading the Wapsie Valley boys basketball team to its first-ever state title, 37-year coach Marty McKowen accumulated his 596th win. The Des Moines Register named McKowen its All-Iowa coach of the year on Thursday, June 18.

“What an honor it was to be named the Coach of the Year for Iowa Sports,” McKowen tweeted on Friday. “This award was made possible by the awesome family our basketball team became this year! I want to thank everyone that was part of our unbelievable journey this year!”

It might not have happened if not for the strong family-like bond he developed with the Wapsie Valley students, staff, and community that kept him rooted there.

He used the hashtag, #WeAreFamily.

The Warriors’ championship win on Friday, March 13, was played in front of only 100 Wapsie Valley fans. The Iowa High School Athletic Association banned the general public from games starting that Friday because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Emotions were at an all-time high after taking down No. 1 Lake Mills, No. 4 Montezuma, and No. 2 Bishop Garrigan to take home the title.

“It’s kind of sunk in and I’ve rewatched each game twice already, and with our shutdown going on I’m sure I’ll watch them again,” McKowen told the Oelwein Daily Register. “Not only have I rewatched those, but just living through the emotions that we had in all of those games.”

It was a classic underdog story.

From an outside perspective, the Warriors were coming into the tournament with the worst record at 18-7 among six other teams with only three losses and a five-loss Springville team. However, Wapsie went on a 15-2 stretch after a 3-5 start to the season, which is why they didn’t view themselves as the worst seed.

“We sat down when we were sitting at 3-5, just sat down with the kids and said, ‘Hey, we’re close to getting things done the right way,’” McKowen said. “They made a couple adjustments and then all the sudden, boom, here we are getting it finished off.

“Going into the state tournament nobody could foresee where we were going being an eighth seed. Our kids just took that to heart. They said right after the seeding came out that we expected to be an eighth seed. We thought people would put us there. Let’s go prove them wrong.”

The atmosphere of belonging or family spirit was evident not only postgame but also when the victors returned home, he said.

“The kids were so excited when we got back in the locker room – the jumping up and down, screaming, and yelling was fantastic. Then when we got back to our district, both Fairbank and Readlyn did parades for us,” owing to social distancing restrictions with COVID-19 concerns. “Put us on the back of a trailer and drove us around town. Just the number of people that stood outside their houses cheering us on was unbelievable.”

Altogether, McKowen coached, taught, and served as athletic director for 37 years at Wapsie Valley. He taught all 37 years, beginning as a full-time math teacher, a role which evolved into a combined math teacher and athletic directorship.

In February, the longtime athletic director received a plaque in appreciation for 25 years of service.

If the measure of a coach is how his players perform, their awards are also relevant.

Kiks Rosengarten, a senior at Wapsie Valley High School, played a key role in pushing the Warriors to the title. The center averaged 17 points over three games in the state tournament. In the Class 1A final, Rosengarten scored a game-high 21 points on 60 percent shooting and pulled down 15 rebounds to help defeat the Golden Bears.

His state performance landed him on the Class 1A all-tournament team, along with sophomore Gunner Meyer, who had a breakout performance.

Rosengarten will continue his basketball career at Upper Iowa University in the fall. The Peacocks are coached by Brooks McKowen, the son of Marty McKowen.

The Wapsie district honored the elder McKowen among other retirees with a drive-by celebration in May.

Usually the retirement celebration falls on the last day of school. Owing to restrictions on gathering with the pandemic, the administration organized that drive-by.

“That was very moving,” McKowen said.

A couple groups came in the morning and left signs out to honk.

“People would honk all day long,” said McKowen, whose grandkids were visiting and would laugh every time someone honked. “I finally took the sign down after dark because people were driving by and honking after dark. It was an all-day event because of the signs left in the yard.”

All of that history could have been erased, had his bond to Wapsie not been as strong.

“Originally, I planned I was going to be here four to five years and go to a place bigger and better,” McKowen told the Daily Register. “Over the years…people that I knew that would call and try to get me to apply for jobs for their program. I probably interviewed at four to five places over my career.

“What I found out was there was no better place than Wapsie Valley, because of the kids, the community, the fellow teachers and coaches, it was just a phenomenal experience.”