THREE OAKS — River Valley varsity boys basketball coach Jason Heckathorn recently announced he is stepping down after 16 years in the River Valley Middle-High School Athletic Department (the last four seasons as varsity coach).
As a proud alumnus of the school and program, as well as a businessman within the Three Oaks community, Heckathorn admitted that the resignation “was a little bittersweet to actually put to paper.”
He coached the Mustang varsity from one lone victory in his first season to eighteen this past year. The 2019-20 Mustangs captured their first conference championship in over twenty years – running the table within the Berrien-Cass-St Joseph (BCS) Conference’s White Division. Although Heckathorn and his veteran squad of mostly seniors were confident in their chances of hoisting River Valley’s first Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) District Championship trophy since 1997, it was not meant to be – with its championship matchup against Eau Claire canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Initially, we had very limited success,” Heckathorn said of his early years coaching within the program including four straight winless seasons as a middle school coach. Eventually, with his current group of seniors, the Mustangs found success. In his four varsity seasons, Heckathorn posted records of 1-20, 6-15, 15-8, and 18-3 – increasing win totals each season.
A member of River Valley’s ‘Class of 1988’, Heckathorn became the varsity head coach prior to the 2016-17 season – and did his best to recreate the glory days of yesteryear when the Mustangs were perennial champions led, of course, by 1992 Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan Hall of Fame Inductee Jerry Schaffer. As a member of the Mustangs’ 1987 and 1988 Conference, District, and Regional Championship teams, Heckathorn – a three-year varsity player – knew first-hand of the magic that exists playing in the old gym on Three Oaks Road.
“Having played for Coach Heckathorn since the fourth grade, it was as if he knew us players better than we knew ourselves,” admits senior co-captain Matthew Schmidt. “He is passionate and never expected less than the best from us. He taught us the basics of basketball and absolutely represents what it means to be a ‘Mustang for Life’. I cannot thank him enough for what he did for our program.”
Speaking of “thanks”, Coach Heckathorn would like to thank a number of individuals … notably Bill Korbel, his longtime assistant and “great friend;” school administrators and secretaries who supported him over the years; his players and parents “for their patience and trust;” the program boosters (notably Katie Schmidt), Garry Lange, Fred Lange, and Justin Berry for their roles in assisting the program; Daren Jones, Jeff Streffling, and Brad Clark for their “gracious help” in supporting his efforts. Lastly and most especially, Heckathorn would like to thank his wife – Cathy – “for her never-ending patience.”
Longtime assistant, classmate, and friend Bill Korbel said: “Jason and I first met and became friends in the third grade during the 1978-79 school year at Chikaming Elementary. It was that same year that our RV basketball journey began as the Mustangs brought home the Class C State Championship. We were on the sidelines, together, as friends and fans supporting the Mustangs during that magical season. Who could have predicted we would still be on those same sidelines, together, as varsity coaches, supporting our Mustangs 42 years later. I would like to thank Jason for all those years of service to Mustang Basketball and for allowing me to be his assistant coach. It has been some of the best times of my life and I will cherish them always. I wish Jason all the best in his retirement, however, I look forward to continuing to sit, side by side, watching Mustang Basketball for years to come.”
River Valley Athletic Director Ryan Portenga noted: “With a packed gymnasium for each home game this past season, a solid core of returning players next year, a formidable youth program in place, and having led the program to an undefeated conference championship – its first in over twenty years – Coach Heckathorn should be proudly at peace in stepping down, knowing the program is better off than it was when he took over."
"On behalf of all throughout our River Valley school community, I would like to thank Jason for his servant leadership and wish him nothing but the best moving forward.”