By Mike Phillips
Corsicana Daily Sun
BLOOMING GROVE —
If Norman Rockwell had painted a picture of a high school basketball player, the kid probably would have looked a lot like Daniel Pelzel.
He’s that kid. You know the one — the kid who would rather be in the gym than at Six Flags, the high school kid who talks more about hoops than movies or music, the unselfish everyman player who simply makes everyone better.
Pelzel isn’t the biggest or tallest and he can’t leap through the ceiling or do any windmill dunks, but he will find a way to beat you, one way or another, and if the Lions lose — and they don’t lose — he stays up late trying to figure out how to beat you the next time, and then he gets up early to do something about it.
That’s Pelzel, who is not only the face of Blooming Grove basketball, but is arguably the heart.
It’s hard to imagine a kid who loves the game more, and almost impossible to find one who works at it harder.
He’s that kid.
“If he scores two points he’s the most valuable player on the court,’’ said Blooming Grove Coach Ben Kinnison, who saw Pelzel play in the spring before Pelzel was a freshman and knew he had a player. “He’s like having another coach on the floor. He’s a four-year starter who has gotten better and better. The game was fast to him at the beginning but after his sophomore year the game started looking slower to him. Now the game is so slow for him he sees everything . He knows where all nine players are on the court, and he makes sure the ball always gets into the hot hand. He will give up ball to get it to someone who is hot.
If Juanya Pyburn is driving and scoring inside, Daniel will get the ball to him. If Tyler Lewis is hitting the shot from the outside, Daniel will get him the ball.’’
That’s what he did Tuesday at Rice, where the two rivals were tied in the final seconds. Kinnison called play for Pelzel to shoot, but when the double-team showed up, Pelzel hit Lewis with a zip pass and Lewis nailed a 3 with five seconds left to beat Rice, 67-64.
“I’ll be glad when he leaves Blooming Grove’’ said Rice Coach Phillips Eddins, who loves the way Pelzel plays. “Coaching against him you are realize how basketball smart he is. You can’t rattle him. He’s always cool, calm and collected.
“When I got here last year we played them in the Frost Tournament and he put up 30-something on us,’’ Eddins said. “Since then I have been on a mission that he doesn’t beat us. I think the world of him. He’s a great kid, not just that he has ability but the way he carries himself. I’d take him in a heartbeat. I’m glad he’s graduating. No doubt about it. I won’t miss him a bit.’’
He gave up the shot to Lewis on Tuesday, but last Friday Pelzel made a huge 3 with 1:10 left to help the Lions beat Buffalo.
“Everybody on this team wanted him to take the shot,’’ said Dalton Blake, who also hit a big 3 for the Lions. “He’s the leader and the captain and everybody on this team wants him to have the ball in his hands.’’
It has always been that way at Blooming Grove.
“He means so much to this team. He is such a leader,’’ said senior Tyler Morris, who has played with Pelzel since they were 8. “There have been games where we fell apart without him on the court. He’s always been a leader, even when we played in Little Dribblers he was that way.’’
Pelzel started playing hoops at the Corsicana YMCA when he was 6, and by the time he was 8 and in Little Dribblers, he was in love with the game. A lot of the kids at that time wore tennis shoes with lights on them to shine, and during one game Pelzel yelled, “Who cares about the lights? Just play ball.’’ He was 8.
He grew up watching the Mavericks with his Dad, Jim, and still believes the best player in the game is Dirk Nowitzski.
“I just fell in love with basketball. I guess it was because I liked the game and I was good at it,’’ Pelzel said.
Good enough to become a starter for the varsity as a freshman. It was anything but an auspicious beginning.
“I almost threw up 30 minutes before the game,’’ Pelzel said this week at practice. “I was sitting there shaking, trying not to throw up.’’
Kinnison said Pelzel was “petrified.’’
“He was already dressed for the JV game when I told him he was on the varsity, and was like (Whoa!),’’ he said, waving his hands to show how shocked else. One of my starters had a sleeve to cover up a tattoo, and the officials said he had the wrong color and that the couldn’t play, so now Daniel is starting.
“He was almost in tears and shaking,’’ he said. “By the end of the first quarter he had a 3 and a couple of assists. He’s been the starting point guard since.’’
Pelzel didn’t just get better and emerge into the best point guard in the Golden Circle. He worked for it — every bit of it.
During football season Kinnison has an open gym at 6:30 every morning. In four years, Pelzel has been missed one morning and was late for another.
It never bothered him to get up at 5 a.m. every day to get to school early. His mother, Karen, who is an elementary teacher at Blooming Grove, drove him.
“She said it gave her a chance to get an early start on her lesson plan,’’ Pelzel said.
It’s a close family, and Daniel is the youngest of three with two sisters. Mom and Dad never miss a game, in fact Karen Pelzel keeps the scorebook for the games.
He’s that kid, that gym rat of gym rats who would rather be in the gym than just about anywhere, and works like crazy when he’s there. In the summer, Pelzel shows up every day and nails hundreds of baskets.
“He comes in and makes 500 to 600 baskets a day,’’ said Kinnison, who has a 10,000 shot program from May until September. “It’s phenomenal. He just loves the game.’’
Earlier this season, Pelzel missed a couple of free throws late in a Friday night game, and the next morning he was at the gym early (Kinnison opens it at 9 a.m. on Saturdays) and shot free throws all morning.
“I thought about the missed free throws all the way home on the bus,’’ Pelzel said. “I thought about them late that night. I couldn’t hardly sleep. I couldn’t wait to get to the gym the next day. I probably shot 150 free throws that morning.”
Pelzel has made more than 300 3-pointers in his career at Blooming Grove, but when Kinnison told him he needed to shoot the long ball four years ago, Pelzel didn’t believe his coach. So he went out and worked hard to perfect his shot.
“When I told him that he needed to shoot 3s he worked so hard to become a 3-point shooter,’’ Kinnison said. “You could see the difference in two weeks.’’
He plays basketball every day at Blooming Grove, and on Sundays he comes to Corsicana to work out with Corsicana girls coach Art Prevost every Sunday afternoon.
Pelzel doesn’t just equate work with the gym — the gym is where he wants to be. When a true gym rat is in the gym, all is right with the universe.
“When I’m in the gym I can forget about homework and any problems, just forget about everything,’’ Pelzel said.
When Pelzel’s grandfather passed away two years ago he grieved hard.
“His mother called me and asked me if I could talk to him, so I went and got him out of class,’’ Kinnison said. “He asked me if he could just go to the gym.’’
Pelzel said that’s where he found solace that day.
He’s found success not only on the court, but in the classroom, where he is fourth in his graduating class with a 3.9 GPA. He plans to go to Texas A&M, but has no plans to play college basketball. There has been interest from small colleges for Pelzel, who is only 5-10 (he was 5-6 when he became a starter), but Pelzel said he would just feed his hunger in intramural games at A&M.
He’s not only lifted Blooming Grove, where the program was mediocre, but he’s helped other players.
“He really motivated me,’’ said senior Rowdy Barlow. “I saw how he works and it made me want to work harder. He’s dedicated. It’s unreal. He runs all the time and we will be in (open gym) shooting, and he will work on ball-handing drills for an hour and a half before he even shoots the ball.
“He means a lot to the team,’’ Barlow said. “He’s like an older brother to everyone on the team. If two guys get in an argument, he’ll step in and break it up.’’
Pelzel isn’t just the straw that stirs the drink, he’s the blender at Blooming Grove, where the program has exploded with success the last two years. The Lions had been a mediocre program and have not been to the playoffs since 1978. But they won 18 games a year ago and are 19-5 and tied for first place in the District 23-2A race. Pelzel has handled everything and more during the turnaround, and has a remarkable 5.6 to 1.0 ration in assists to turnovers.
He’s help turn the program over.
Morris put it simply.
“We all believe in him,’’ he said. “Everyone has confidence in him. We want the ball in his hands.’’
Kinnison said you couldn’t ask for more, and told a story about when he was caught up in a parents meeting one day before practice how Pelzel took over.
“I was tied up and got to practice a little late, but everyone had already gone through the stretching and Daniel had them running drills,’’ Kinnison said.
“He’s just the best kid, and not just in basketball. He’s the kind of kid you want your daughter to date. He’s that great of a kid.
“And he is absolutely the heart and soul of the turnaround here.’’
Yup, he’s that kid — you know the one ...