Spain Park’s Chris Laatsch taking over as Orange Beach basketball coach

Published 6:18 pm Thursday, April 11, 2024

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HOOVER – Following a memorable 26 years as a head coach in Shelby County, Chris Laatsch will now tackle a new challenge after accepting his first coaching position outside of the county lines since 1998.

Laatsch has led three teams across Shelby County since 1998, with stops at Briarwood Christian School, Helena High School and Spain Park High School in that span, making history at each along the way.

On Thursday, April 11, he was board approved as the next head basketball coach at Orange Beach.

For Laatsch, it was a difficult decision after spending 48 of his 52 years of life in Shelby County, but one he and his wife Leigh said was the right move for them.

“Orange Beach has only been a school for four years,” Chris said. “What can this place be? Getting in on the ground floor, can we take it another step and reach heights that have never been reached? The community excitement and excitement in the school make it a really special place to work and grow.”

The Orange Beach basketball team has yet to have a winning season in its four years, but Chris is no stranger to building a program and sustaining success after doing it for the past 26 years in Shelby County.

He coached at Briarwood Christian School for 16 seasons before becoming the head coach of Helena High School’s first basketball team. He spent four seasons leading the Huskies before accepting the head coaching job at Spain Park in 2018.

He has since spent the last six seasons leading the Jaguars, turning them into a contender for the state championship each year.

In his second season at Spain Park, he took a seven-win team the season before and turned the Jaguars into a 20-win team that found its way to the Elite Eight.

Then came three consecutive trips to the Final Four between 2021 and 2023.

Chris was named the Shelby County Coach of the Year in back-to-back years with the Jaguars, winning for his efforts during the 2021-2022 season and the 2022-2023 season after two straight trips to the Final Four.

He also earned the county’s top honor in 2018 before taking the Spain Park job after leading Helena to its first appearance in the Sweet 16. He also led Briarwood to the Final Four and a state championship game appearance in his time with the Lions, giving him Final Four and state championship appearances in two of his three stops in the county.

Between those three stops and his four years at UMS-Wright, Chris has totaled 496 total wins as a head coach, placing him four wins shy of 500 as he takes on this new challenge—an achievement he hopes to accomplish early in his first season leading the Makos.

The move to Orange Beach wasn’t something the head coach was looking for, but when the school came calling, he decided to listen.

“When you’re extremely happy where you are, you’re not looking for something,” he said. “When they reached out, I said I would listen. I had a long conversation with (Principal) Chris Shaw. He asked a lot of questions, I asked a lot. I was then asked if I could be part of a Zoom interview with a panel of people. They then narrowed it down for people to come on campus to finalize the decision. Last week, I went down to visit the campus. Shortly after, they called and offered.”

Chris said it was exciting, but it was also difficult, comparing the feeling to that of his past stops.

“It’s exciting and sad all rolled into one,” he said. “Leaving Briarwood was the same way. It can feel overwhelming, but the people were incredible and got behind it at Helena. Going to Spain Park, it was the same thing and grew into incredible things.”

The difference this time is that he and his wife are moving four hours away from what has been considered home for all but four years of their life and marriage.

Leigh, however, encouraged the move and said their willingness to make it should show their future community the commitment they have to building a strong program.

“We’re leaving our children, our friends, our home,” she said. “This is where we grew up, where we raised our children. We’ve had wonderful experiences here and each level has prepared us for where we are heading. Now, we’re ready to be in Orange Beach and be a part of something really special. I think, being a coach’s wife, I live in expectation of possible expectation of change right around the corner. That’s what it has become. I encouraged him to pursue this because it feels like this is where we are meant to be next.”

Chris also said that he and his wife were doing a morning devotional during the process that told the story of James and John and how they left their father Zebedee and their boat to follow Jesus.

“Leaving our kids, parents, grandparents, that really helped in our decision making,” he said. “We are both leaving a lot behind here, but this is the Lord telling us to go. It’s hard to leave, but it’s exciting at the same time.

He also added that current Orange Beach girls head coach and former Spain Park girls head coach Mike Chase helped in the decision-making process.

“It was all starting to hit me,” he said. “You start to think, ‘Man what have I done?’ There is all of the unknown—selling a house, buying a house, leaving things behind, helping with the transition of Spain Park, getting to Orange Beach and building that program. It was a lot. While I was down there, coach Chase chimed in while I was talking to him and said, ‘You have five minutes to get in my car.’ I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ He just said, ‘Five minutes.’ I got in his car and he drove right to the beach. We put out some chairs and just sat there and talked.”

Now that he has accepted the job, it has started to become real, and really hit him when he was talking to a former player about seeing them at Christmas or other holidays and the player responded, “Coach, no you won’t, you won’t be in town anymore, you’ll be four hours away.”

“That’s when it really hit me,” he said.

That, however, also reminded him why he loves what he does and why he is excited about the next step.

“I’ve had great relationships with great kids,” he said. “Players from my first team in Briarwood I still stay in touch with. Relationships are what drive me, whether its inside the program or with officials or others. I’m looking forward to continuing to do the same at Orange Beach.”

It is that side of the coach that Leigh said will be what sticks out as they make the move to Orange Beach.

“His passion for people and relationships is what really drives him,” she said. “He wants to create a program where student athletes and students in general can fly. To see them make the right choice, push through adversity, be a team and be about something bigger than yourself. That’s something he lives out in front of me and our children. The last couple of weeks have been very reflective, but that a privilege it is for us to have the opportunity to go and be a part of strengthening this program.”

Chris said he hopes to build the same success he has had in the past with his new team, and the only way that will be possible is if he trusts his new team and communities and they buy in together as a team to show their trust in him.

“The people are what have made my last three stops so successful,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate to work along so many great coaches who believe in what we do. There is no right offense, no right defense, no right system. If there was, everybody in the NBA a lot smarter than me would be running it. It’s figuring out who we are and seeing what fits your team, but then getting the buy in and being committed to that. You want the players to get lost in something bigger than themselves and ask, ‘How can I make the team better?’ When you get that buy in, it makes the team better. That’s been the key to our success. There are no shortcuts or easy ways.”

Chris said his first steps after being board approved will be to get in and meet with the coaches and start connecting with them before meeting with the players and forming those relationships.

“I want to get to know the coaches as men and people to find out who they are and get to know the history and background of each so we can cast a vision for working together,” he said. “That will give me a good feel for where the program is and what we need to do to build off of that and take it to the next level of success. Then, I can’t wait to meet the boys, because they are what drives the bus. They don’t know me, so building that relationship will be important because we have to have trust in each other and buy into the vision together as a collective unit.”

Chris went on to thank his family for their support in one of the biggest decisions of his career and helping him get to a point of this opportunity.

“My wife has been biggest supporter of not just me but other coaches and players,” he said. “I got a text from another coach who said how much she impacted him and his wife and daughter. She’s been there every step of the way. She is ready to give me a hug, hold my head while I’m crying. You can’t do this job without a wife who is willing to be there for you. My kids, my parents, my sister, my brother, they all support me. My kids rise and fall with every win and loss. The support of my family makes the journey so special. By no means has any of this been about me, it’s been about doing it with my family, my friends, our support system.”

He and Leigh both talked about their excitement level because of the buy in from the community, the city, the school system and the high school to build a great program and student body.

“He is ready to reach the hearts of the student athletes and connect with faculty and staff,” Leigh said. “He wants to lead in a way that the administration, superintendent and board will be proud of. It’s about the people and relationships. We hope we can have an impact down there and build a strong successful basketball program.”