LUSK – Their impact cannot be counted in stats and numbers – that would be boring and repetitive. What Ron Nelson, Deb and Rich Murray have brought to Niobrara County, more than state and regional championships and all-state athletes, was a sense of commitment. While the Murrays are hanging up their basketball sneakers for good, Ron may still be seen around the wrestling room and throwing rings.
“It’s remarkable how many hours they spent and athletes they coached in developing successful programs,” said Dennis Zowada. “But probably the most important thing is how they cared personally for each and every kid they worked with.”
It’s not often one gets to interview three coaching legends that have combined for close to 200 years of experience across the board. In fact, the only sports the trio has not coached are Lusk Middle School volleyball, girls or boys’ basketball. Admittedly nervous, this writer sat with four of his former teachers and coaches in the NCHS gym lobby surrounded by trophies with their names on most of them.
“To watch all these young people grow and become outstanding citizens is a great feeling,” Holly Nelson said. “And to see some of them come back is wonderful.”
As the conversation progressed, the number one reason for their longevity always came back to the kids. Maybe they didn’t realize it in the moments, but as the years, wins and championships piled up, their inspirational abilities became apparent.
“I don’t think you ever feel that at the time, but it only pops up years later, and they don’t even notice it right away,” said Rich. “I don’t know if you’re trying to make an influence but trying to do what’s right.”
“It’s neat to see these kids give back to their sport or community and that’s what is so great,” said Ron. “Maybe it’s our influence or the fact we’ve been blessed with so many great kids and families.”
Ron and Holly Nelson arrived in Lusk for the beginning of the 1969-70 school year. Holly became a fixture teaching grade school for 45 years, while Ron has occupied the west end of NCHS. He was Jerry Oestman’s wrestling assistant for 13 years before taking over and has been the throwing coach for the track and field teams for over 30 years. As this story was being completed, Ron’s latest thrower, Jasper Caldera, won the 2A State discus and shot put titles.
“Ron is like a father to me, probably one of the most influential humans I’ve ever had in my life,” said Doug Lytle. “Taking throwing and records out of the books, he taught me how to be a man. It’s amazing how big an influence he can have on everybody.”
“Ron’s just always had a way about him, you did it right,” said JD Wasserburger. “He’s always been about the community and being one of those you looked up to. One of those dynamic people that loves Lusk and loves to watch his kids compete.”
A star athlete while at NCHS, Deb came home after college and built a dynasty in Lady Tiger Basketball. She spent five years as an assistant before taking the reins for the 1991-92 season. Deb was the assistant volleyball coach for Lusk’s best era of the 1990’s and later on coached the golf teams to success.
“Those three are probably some of the most influential people I’ve had in my life,” said Sally (Powers) Nichols. “I still coach today because of what they did for me.”
“I think the biggest thing is, they cared so much about their students,” said Shayley (Dockery) Love. “They truly wanted you to be successful as an athlete and a person.”
“Deb would have been a great wrestling coach,” added Wasserburger.
The Minnesota boy, Rich spent ten years coaching the Cheyenne St. Mary’s/Seton Catholic basketball teams before coming to Lusk for the 1987-88 school year. After 26 years leading the Lusk boys, he joined Deb on the Lady Tiger sideline for the past five seasons.
“I think a lot of it was the pure enjoyment of being able to compete. We all like to say they made us better people (and they did) but they were all super competitive,” said Shawn Johnson. “They lit the fire in me to become a coach and gave me an avenue to do that.”
“I think about all the great welding products that coach Nelson’s shop has produced and loved the idea of what he did, and, he’s an icon in Wyoming wrestling and throwing,” said Travis Santistevan. “Coach Murray wrote us all personal notes after we won state my senior year, and many of his ideas I still use as a coach.”
A quarter century of working together at Niobrara County High School brings a close to an era of students that inspired them back. All three are the most successful coaches in their sport in school history. There were plenty of wins, losses, championships and countless awards, but the number of students they impacted is much, much higher.
“Like Ron mentioned about yesterday’s track meet, there were so many alumni here to help,” Deb said. “That’s been what is so impressive about our kids, is how they come back and give their time back to the programs.”
Retirement doesn’t mean the Murrays and Nelsons are ready to slow down as Rich and Holly seem to have the same post office schedule. Each of them intends to keep busy in so many of the community activities they are involved with and spend more time with their families.
The emotion and respect that was given in personal interviews (and so many others) echoed back to the dedication they showed for decades, and to several generations. Niobrara County is very fortunate to have had them call Lusk home.
“It was always about the kids and being able to lead by example,” said Ryan Nelson. “I don’t know how you ever put a number on that, it’s probably something we’ll never see again.”
So many outstanding comments came from over a dozen interviews, and the most common theme always came back to an ability to inspire. There are far too many to name that have become teachers, coaches, officials and leaders because of what the Nelsons and Murrays taught us.
(Writers note: Thank you to everyone involved in interviews for your time. While not everything we discussed can fit into this story, your emotion, insight and perspective is priceless. The following people need to be recognized for their contrbutions: Barb Rapp, Jim Craig, JD Wasserburger, Dennis Zowada, Ryan Nelson, Mark Bullington, Shawn Johnson, Doug Lytle, Sally (Powers) Nichols, Kit Nelson, Riley Shaw, Travis Santistevan, Shayley (Dockery) Love, Robyn Heth and Jason Wasserburger.)