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Merg leads Wauwatosa East girls to basketball enjoyment and continual improvement
The Wauwatosa East girls basketball team before a tense playoff showdown at Milwaukee Messmer, ultimately the biggest win of the 2019-2020 season. (Courtesy Kathleen Gallagher)

Merg leads Wauwatosa East girls to basketball enjoyment and continual improvement

WAUWATOSA, Wis. (BVM) — At Wauwatosa East High School, girls varsity basketball coach, Mary Merg, has a surprising definition of success: “are my players enjoying the game of basketball?”

The immense effort of her girls projects enjoyment for Merg rather than frustration.

“No matter what the score is, how many wins or losses we have, or who we play, does the game bring them joy and fulfillment?” Merg said. “At the high school level, you help create the passion for the game.”

Another crucial success factor is not mere wins, but instead continual improvement.

“I often ask my players at the end of practice, ‘Did we get better today?’” Merg added. “Small improvements daily equal major improvements in the long run. It is extremely rewarding as a coach to witness a player learn a new skill and find the confidence to use it in a game.”

The varsity program struggled during the 2019-20 season, slipping from 15-8 the prior year to a 5-19 record. The girls lost a core group of players from 2018-19, and endured transfers and injuries as well.

However, every team makes the playoffs in Wisconsin, and a first-round stunner over Milwaukee Messmer provided a lasting joyful memory for last season’s squad.

“This is a team that has gone through an immense amount of adversity,” Merg said. “To witness them come together and secure a win was incredible.”

Despite the adversity faced throughout the year, the season still had meaning for both the coach and her players.

“If I walk away from a season where my players improved and enjoyed the season, that is a win for me,” Merg said.

One crucial moment in particular reflected this truth.

“One practice, after we just lost by 20-plus to our rival, I asked a player if they are happy they decided to play basketball this season,” Merg recalled.

The answer was no surprise in what is such a dedicated program.

“They responded, ‘Yes, I am having fun,’ and that is a coach’s joy right there,” Merg said. “Even though our record flipped from the year prior, I thoroughly enjoyed coaching this team.”

Several girls on the team have made an incredibly strong impact on improving the program.

“There are many that come to mind,” Merg said. “Currently, senior Chloe Dallas helps create a culture at East. She exerts so much passion for the game; it is clear. She has worked hard on her craft and deserves the recognition she is getting. Younger players look up to her.”

Merg also mentioned numerous other players who have contributed in the past.

“When I think of players in the past, it is a Sydney Halstead, Lily Manke, Mariana Ibanez-Baldor, who just consistently work hard and are coachable players,” Merg said. “No matter if it is practice or game, no matter if we are up 10 or down 20, they try their best.”

Although having fun and improving are essential, Merg also aims to instill values on her players.

“A key one would be work ethic,” Merg said when discussing the values she teaches the girls. “Understanding that the more you practice and the better you become, the more confidence you can gain.”

Merg also stresses the virtue of learning through failure.

“Another key value is that it is OK to fail,” she added. “I said daily in practice, ‘I want you to fail.’ I want players that get outside of their comfort zone and challenge themselves.”

As many coaches would, Merg insists that occasional disappointments are beneficial for her players.

“Kids are so afraid to fail,” Merg said. “I want to open their eyes in that sometimes, failure is needed in order to achieve something greater. I do not expect perfection, but I expect effort.”

As the program transitions to the upcoming season, Merg has several on-court goals for her team.

“Will each player improve and will each player enjoy the game?” Merg asked. “In addition, a goal would be to win more than five games so they can see what work ethic can do. We are only losing two players from the previous season, so building on the team chemistry will also be important.”

Wauwatosa East tends to have more enthusiasm for the boys basketball program. However, Merg stands to change this with a powerful message to potential players.

“I have a program that will challenge you,” she said. “You will be frustrated at times, but also, you have the ability to get better, and be surrounded by a great group of girls and coaching staff.”

Merg also offered some insight as to what to expect as a Red Raider playing for her.

“I am an honest coach, but I do my best to be approachable,” Merg said. “As a staff, we aren’t perfect either. I strive for my players to have the comfortability to have discussions with me.”

As the program builds momentum into the 2020-21 season, Merg knows her team will continue to develop.

“I will be with them every step of the way and will be their biggest advocate on the court,” Merg said. “I could let my players speak for the program. Having a team that goes 5-19 and wants to return next season says a lot about the program.”

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