During his year away from the sidelines, former longtime St. Joseph boys and girls basketball coach Lynell Collins maintained at least a passing interest in the game.
But he did it from afar — and it’s safe to say, the itch to coach again never truly left.
So when he had a chance to scratch that itch, that’s just what Collins did.
And just like that, Collins — who coached the St. Joseph boys for three years and the girls for six after that before he stepped down in 2018 — is ready to roam the sidelines again, this time at the helm of the Tremper girls program.
Collins takes over for former Tremper coach Rod Gross, who stepped down after 19 years.
“I was looking for a good opportunity to open up, and it just so happened the Tremper job opened up,” Collins said during practice Monday afternoon. “I gave it a look, and it seemed to be a good opportunity. It’s been good so far. I’m looking forward to a good year.”
Collins said the year away from the high school game — he remained active at the club level — also included some much-needed family time, along with the occasional trip to an area gymnasium to check out some action on the hard court.
But being there just as a fan proved to be challenging.
“I went to a few games last year, but I didn’t go to as many because it’s hard to go to games when you know you really want to be out there a part of it,” Collins said.
Now that’s he’s back, Collins is full throttle with his new team, which hosts perennial WIAA Division-1 powerhouse Mukwonago in the season opener at 7 p.m. Friday night.
The time away seemed to have recharged his batteries, Collins said, and he’s also excited about the enthusiastic and ready-to-learn athletes he and his coaches will work with the next several months.
“I’m looking forward to getting back out there and working with the girls,” he said. “They have so far been working extremely hard. They’re listening and are giving me all they have. I’m excited to be here.”
Collins, who guided the St. Joseph girls to the WIAA Division-4 state title game in 2016, enters this season with a 100-48 career record.
With only two seniors on the roster, Jasmine Wiliams (2.2 points a game) and Brianna Pacetti (3.5 points), there will be plenty of youth on the floor at all times this winter.
Those two, who also will serve as team captains, already have stepped up into a leadership role, Collins said.
“They’re doing a good job,” he said. “Both of them played for me before (at the club level), so they know me a little bit as a coach and a person. It’s been a few years since I’ve coached them, but they know me and know what I’m looking for. They’re doing a good job of trying to make sure the girls are buying in, and they are.”
The Trojans’ other returning letterwinner is junior Brooke Clements (2.6 points per game).
As for goals in the Southeast Conference and beyond?
Collins of course expects to pile up victories, but he also realizes there is plenty of building that must be done before those can be a huge priority.
“Obviously, we are looking to build fundamentals, to make sure they’re building a basketball IQ and things like that,” he said. “The girls are doing a really good job.
“Goal-wise, we want to win conference. I am a very competitive person. We want to win conference every year. I know that’s going be a tough battle this year with (seven-time champion) Oak Creek doing their thing. Hopefully, before long, we can battle with Oak Creek and be able to say that we can beat them.”
Assisting Collins are Tom Pacetti and Collins’ son, Bakari, at the varsity level, Rachel Jones with the JV1 team and Nwoye Green with the JV2 squad.
Through one full week of practice and into preparations for the opener Friday, the excitement level hasn’t waned a bit, Collins said.
He’s ready to get going for real.
“It’s exciting to walk in the gym as a coach and your kids really want to work for you,” he said.
Collins will get a chance to see his former school up close and personal on Dec. 28 when the teams meet at Carthage at 3:15 p.m. as part of the Doctors of Physical Therapy Holiday Classic.
Looking closer at the Southeast Conference, Oak Creek was picked to run its title streak to eight straight by WisSports.net. Tremper is picked fifth, Indian Trail sixth and Bradford eighth.
Indian Trail junior guard Kalina Winslow is among the players to watch in the SEC after she averaged 8.6 points a game last season. Bradford’s top returning players are junior Madeline Snyder (7 points a game) and sophomore Aniyah Ervin (6.8 points).
In the Southern Lakes Conference, defending champion Waterford is the pick again, followed by Wilmot and Union Grove. Central is picked seventh in the eight-team league.
The Wilmot duo of seniors Julia Hickey (5-foot-3, guard) and Kenzie Ketterhagen (5-2, guard) are among the players to watch in the SLC. Hickey (11 points a game) was an All-SLC first-team selection last year. Ketterhagen averaged eight points and four assists.
Central returns five of its top six scorers, led by senior Ellie Witt (10 points a game) and junior Jillian Adams (8.6).
St. Joseph and Shoreland Lutheran were picked to finish third and fourth, respectively, in the Metro Classic Conference, behind Racine Lutheran and Greendale Martin Luther.
For Shoreland, this season is the start of the post-Chelby Koker era, as the state’s second-leading scorer last season and all-time Kenosha County career leader graduated.
Among the girls looking to fill that void are senior Lauren Heathcock (13.7 points, 6.3 rebounds) and junior Natalie Brug (7.1 points, 4.6 rebounds).
St. Joseph will be led by senior Katie Matrise, who poured in 22.2 points to go with 4.5 rebounds and two steals a game as a junior. Matrise was a second-team All-Metro Classic pick last year.
Joining Matrise is senior Elizabeth Alia (7.8 points), along with sophomore Paige Trachte, who transferred from Bradford after she scored 11.2 points a game for the Red Devils a season ago.
In the Midwest Classic Conference, four-time champion Brookfield Academy is the pick again, followed by Lake Country Lutheran and University School of Milwaukee. Christian Life is picked eighth.
The top returning player for the Eagles is senior Adeline Fredrick, who was an All-Midwest Classic second-team pick a season ago.
Here are a few key dates for the upcoming season, which officially began play around the state Tuesday night:
— Wednesday: Central at Indian Trail, 7 p.m.
— Friday: Shoreland Lutheran at Wilmot, 7 p.m.
— Dec. 6: Indian Trail at Bradford, 7 p.m.; Central at Wilmot, 7 p.m.
— Dec. 13: Tremper at Indian Trail, 5:30 p.m.
— Dec. 14: Central vs. St. Joseph, 11 a.m., at Racine Prairie
— Dec. 26: Bradford vs. St. Joseph, 4:15 p.m., at Carthage
— Dec. 27: Tremper vs. Central, 2:30 p.m., at Carthage
— Dec. 28: Tremper vs. St. Joseph, 3:15 p.m., at Carthage
— Jan. 7: Bradford at Tremper, 5:30 p.m.
— Jan. 11: Tremper at Wilmot, 6 p.m.
— Jan. 14: Central at Bradford, 7 p.m.; Shoreland Lutheran at St. Joseph, 5:30 p.m.
— Jan. 21: Bradford at Indian Trail, 5:30 p.m.
— Jan. 24: Wilmot at Central, 5:30 p.m.
— Jan. 31: Indian Trail at Tremper, 5:30 p.m.
— Feb. 8: Tremper at Bradford, 5 p.m.
— Feb. 11: St. Joseph at Shoreland Lutheran, 5:30 p.m.