Lutheran West girls basketball head coach Karen Wittrock took
advantage of every moment she could, both on and off the court,
to lead by example and teach the virtues a strong faith in God.
(Photo courtesy of Lutheran West High School)
fuels Wittrock’s success
By Jim Horvath
Published May 28, 2008
her humble beginnings as a child raised in rural Missouri to her
adult years as a hall of fame basketball coach, one thing has remained
a constant in the life of Karen Wittrock:
It doesn’t take long when having a conversation with
Wittrock to realize the importance of her strong faith in God, whether
it be about teaching, basketball, family or her own life. And as
the conversation continues, there can be no doubt about her sincerity
“I see how my life has been directed by the Lord in
different situations I’ve been in, whether it be in teaching or
through sports,” said Wittrock, who recently resigned her position
as the head girls basketball coach at Lutheran West.
“I see my work here at Lutheran West as a ministry,
whether it be in the classroom, on the basketball court or coaching
the golf team,” she said. “I feel it’s my duty to minister to the
students here, to help guide them as they’re growing up and to help
them see the Lord as I see him.
“If you believe and have faith, somehow He works things
out so that it’ll be OK. He will work things out for us if we trust
Him. It’s important to me that the students I work with know that
as I know that,” she said.
Wittrock shares a happy moment with Lutheran West Athletic Director
Joel Gesch after winning her 600th game January 7, 2004. (Photo
courtesy of Lutheran West High School)
It is that faith that has fueled a stellar teaching
and coaching career at Lutheran West. It has also been a steadying
influence in Wittrock’s personal life, whether it concerned a family
matter, a career choice or her own successful battle against ovarian
cancer a few years ago.
It is a faith that grew out of some very simple times
as a young girl in Missouri.
Wittrock grew up in a log home with no electricity
on the shore of the Lake of the Ozarks, just outside a little town
called Gravois Mills, population 33.
“I remember when Dad bought a generator so we could
have lights in the house,” she recalled. “I was around eight years
old, and I just thought that was awesome. Dad was a builder, and
pretty soon after that he built a new home that’s still there today.
“My first school was a little building with four classes.
Later, when some of the smaller schools consolidated, we went to
high school in Versailles. By then, I already knew that I wanted
to be a teacher. I think I knew that by the time I was in seventh
grade,” she said.
Wittrock said she had several relatives who were involved
with the Lutheran school system. She decided that was the path she’d
follow as well.
“I remember I admired them so much,” she said. “I
wanted to follow in their footsteps, so after high school I went
to Concordia St. Paul, which was a Lutheran community college. Then
I had my choice of moving on to either Concordia in Chicago or Concordia
in Seward, Nebraska.
“Well, I couldn’t envision a little country girl going
to Chicago, so I went to Seward. I was comfortable there, and I
was closer to home, which was important to me,” she said.
When it was time to do her student teaching, Wittrock
said there were very few Lutheran schools to pick from. “I think
there were about 17 at the time. Now there’s 50. There was one in
St. Louis, and another one in Cleveland. There were others, but
those were the two they were deciding to send me to.
“They sent me and three or four others to Cleveland,
and we all had to student teach at both the elementary school and
the high school level. I did my elementary teaching at Messiah Lutheran,
where I still go to church today. Then I came to Lutheran West for
the high school part.
“As it turned out, the lady who taught physical education
at West was leaving, so there was a position open at West for physical
education and math. They liked me and called me back, but the college
wanted me to stay and work there,” she said.
It was that decision that further strengthened Wittrock’s
“Looking back on it, I’m so glad I stayed in Cleveland,”
she said. “I really enjoy working with high school-aged students.
I’m not so sure I would have enjoyed the college level as much.
It showed me, though, how God works in your life. I thought I was
going back to Seward, but I got the call from West and wound up
coming back here.”
The decision couldn’t have worked any better for both
Wittrock and Lutheran West.
In 1967, a group of girls approached Wittrock about
starting a girls basketball team. Fourty one years and 657 victories
later, Wittrock leaves behind a legacy which may never be duplicated.
Her first team went 6-7, her last 9-12. Those were
the only losing seasons in 41 years for Wittrock, who saw the program
grow from playing the old six-person version of the game to the
more accepted five-person game. She found places for her teams to
practice when the boys team wouldn’t let them use the school gym.
Her teams played against bigger schools from the east side and Cleveland
and Akron “because there were no other teams to play.”
She saw the Ohio High School Athletic Association
take over girls sports, immediately dropping the schedule to just
12 games after Wittrock’s teams were used to playing 18 to 20 games.
That was in the old Inland Conference, which started in 1972.
Things have come a long way, she said, since those
“I remember starting the program,” she said. “I didn’t
know I had to have permission from the board first. Well, word got
out to our superintendent, Dr. Erwin F. Sagehorn. ‘So, I understand
we now have a girls basketball team,’ he said.
“Well, he got the board to give its approval. We didn’t
get any funding, but we could play,” she said.
Wittrock helped get the other girls sports programs
started at Lutheran West. But it will be her efforts in basketball
that most people will remember.
Her record of 657-198 gives her a winning percentage
of 76.8, and she has led her teams to more victories than any other
coach in the state of Ohio. Her Longhorns won 21 conference championships,
22 sectional championships, seven district titles, one regional
title and a runner-up finish at the state tournament in 1976.
Wittrock’s coaching honors include being inducted
into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame, the Concordia University-Chicago
Athletic Hall of Fame, The Lutheran West Athletic Hall of Fame and
the Women’s Basketball Magazine Hall of Fame. She was named Outstanding
Coach of the Year in 1999 by the National Women’s Sports Foundation
and named Ohio Coach of the Year four times.
Wittrock has been chosen conference Coach of the Year
20 times, and this past season received the James Naismith Meritorious
Service award from the OHSAA.
She has decided to remain at Lutheran West as the
head of the Health and Physical Education Department, and will retain
her role as the men’s varsity golf coach.
Her work at West, she said, isn’t finished.
“If I see a student is struggling with something,
I’ll take them aside and do my best to encourage them,” said Wittrock.
“I try to tell them that the Lord will work it to the good in the
end. And I try to set a good example as best I can. When you say
something, you have to live it. You have to mean it.
“That’s how kids learn, and it helps them get closer
to Him,” she said.
Even her final team, despite injuries and winding
up with a losing record, finished strong with wins against Clearview
and Oberlin. It was a testament to Wittrock’s teaching that despite
one’s downfalls, God always gives people a second chance.
Still, Wittrock wasn’t willing to take any credit.
“None of this success comes because of me,” she said.
“It’s God working His will through me. My abilities come because
of Him. I give Him the credit for everything.”