GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Joe Russom was an assistant coach last season for the Xavier girls basketball team but the former Appleton North girls coach was also keeping an eye on his former conference -- the Fox Valley Association.
Some out of interest and also because if the right position became available he would be open to a return to being a head coach.
That became possible when Craig Hawley left Kaukauna during the 2019-20 season. The Galloping Ghosts were a team with talent but for some reason unable to put it together on a consistent basis.
This week Russom returned to the FVA after a two-year hiatus as Kaukauna's new head coach and he couldn't be more excited.
"I love that I'm in the FVA," Russom said. "I miss those rivalry games and I miss having to make those adjustments and I miss working with kids and running a program. For me, this was it. I could build something new, something fresh. I'm beyond excited."
Russom left Appleton North in the spring of 2018 after guiding the Lightning to consecutive state titles (2017 and 2018) and three straight state appearances. He stepped away in order to care for his mother, who at the time was living in Minnesota, but now lives in the Fox Valley.
Although Russom was assisting B.J. Buss at Xavier, he knew the landscape of the FVA last season.
"Nobody was going to beat Hortonville last year," Russom said. "If that was not the best team in the state, it was the second best team in any division in the state. After that, Kimberly was really solid, (Appleton) East was really solid and so forth. I feel like this team can be talked about in the same (breath)."
If the Ghosts can overcome a few things.
"The problem they've had is decision making at times in clutch situations and belief," Russom said. "It's not a talent or fundamental thing, it's a cultural thing. We have to shift that culture from K-12 into one that is competitive, has to buy in from top to bottom, has one vision and is completely collaborative. If they do that, they can be an effective force in the FVA."
Russom says Kaukauna has talent returning next season with the likes of Chloe Van Zeeland (multiple Division I offers), Sutten Ebben, Graysin Hartjes, Maddy McCabe and Aspen Novy. However, he would like to meet the players in person this summer, but COVID-19 may not allow that to happen.
"The hardest thing for me is not being able to see these kids because of the COVID and meet them and really get to know them virtually, which is not my style," he said. "I think the biggest thing for them to trust me to believe. I'm there to benefit them and develop the relationship piece. The x's and o's I'm not worried about, these are smart kids, these are talented kids, we'll get it figured out.
"For us, it's about connection. The reason we had success at North is we had trusted each other, we were collaborative. It was a great group of parents. That's what I'm hoping to build at at Kaukauna."
Russom won 180 games in 10 seasons at North and it wasn't always contending for state titles. He said his experience at North will benefit him greatly with his new program.
"I think a ton," Russom said. "The experiences and lessons I learned from the early part of building a program at North, I'm not going to make those stupid mistakes. I'm definitely going to bring the experience, I have the resume. This program can take a dramatic turn.
"It can change the dynamic of the FVA and also their sectional. My goal isn't just be competitive for one year, or do this for just one short spin. I'm in this for the long haul. This is my last stop."
When Russom left North he assisted the girls volleyball team at Menasha in 2018 and then assisted Buss last season. Returning to the bench as an assistant was a great experience.
"It was really good for me," Russom said. "I was able to see the game from a different point of view, you got be told no. Obviously being a head coach you get the final say. Working with B.J. was a good thing. I enjoyed the kids, BJ. It was good stuff."
But as the 2019-20 season developed, so did Russom's hunger to lead a program. Ironically, North had an opening as Russom's former assistant Darren Prusinski left the program. Nonetheless, Russom wasn't eyeing a return to North, but a fresh start.
"It was really right for a number of reasons" Russom said of ending up at Kaukauna. "What closed the deal for me was reviewing the documents from the youth program, seeing what they've done the past few years, the direction they were headed. I knew this was the pace to be. I had zero doubts this was the absolute best fit for me."
Follow Doug Ritchay on Twitter @dougritchay