BY MIKE URSERY
Steve Combs sat inside one of the locker rooms inside Mizzou Arena, trying to find a way to pick his players up after a tough loss.
His Harrisburg Bulldogs had just lost a game against Father Tolton. It was the finale of a scheduled day of games in the MFA Oil Shootout, held at Mizzou Arena on Jan. 22.
It was the team’s second straight loss against Father Tolton. They suffered an 80-57 defeat to the Trailblazers the previous night, in the championship game of the Macon Invitational Tournament.
“We just never could get on the same page,” Combs said about his team’s performance up to that point in the season.
The team did have trouble getting on the same page, considering the circumstances leading up to the season.
Combs said not everyone could show up to summer workouts at the same time. It wasn’t a good summer, as far as cohesiveness goes, he said.
The Bulldogs were without two key players when the season began. Christian Jenkins and Trey Freeman didn’t join the team until after the beginning of the second semester. Combs said it was hard to set a consistent rotation and get into a flow. Despite their 10-5 record, the Bulldogs showed signs of struggle.
“As a coach, you try to find something that will pull the team together and get these guys on the same page,” Combs said.
He pulled some money out and put into a cup. He told his team that he was making a bet with them, that they would be back at Mizzou Arena in March for the Show-Me Showdown.
His players agreed to the bet, and contributed money into the pot.
That message resonated with the team and lit a spark. After going 10-5 thought their first 15 games, They went 13-4 the rest of the way, capturing a share of the Lewis and Clark Conference title and won a district championship. On top of that, they met Combs’ challenge and earned the right to go back to Columbia for the Show-Me Showdown.
“I thought that was just a way to see if we can’t pull this thing together, to see if we can’t get this going and see if we can’t motivate those guys to reach their potential,” Combs said.
Harrisburg ended their regular season with a win over Knox County to force a three-way tie for first place in the conference.
They carried that momentum into the Class 2 District 8 tournament, scoring double-digit wins over Calvary Lutheran, Fayette and top-seeded Eugene.
It was their first district championship in eight years. They reached the district title game the year before, losing to Westran by two points.
Combs said he told his players that the regular season was like 25 practice games, and that the real season began with the district tournament.
“We talked about how we worked hard and worked for a year to get back to this point, and get it done this time,” Combs said.
In the Class 2 semifinals, Harrisburg suffered an upset loss against Crane. They had to return to the court less than 24 hours later, facing Sacred Heart in the third place game.
Combs said the game against Crane was one where they felt like they were in control, but they let it slip through their fingers.
“As a coach, it’s one of those nights where you try everything to turn the tide, but you just couldn’t get it turned,” Combs said. “It’s a big stage. It’s one where you play for such high stakes, there’s gonna be times where emotions become a part of that. As a coach, I’ve been lucky to play in a lot of those games. I know what they’re playing for. I know the intensity level that it is. It’s unlike anything else.”
That trip to the final four was the sixth for Combs as Harrisburg’s head boys basketball coach.
Their last game of the season was the third place game against Sacred Heart, and the last one for Combs.
The intensity level that he described was seen in that game. The Bulldogs were in a back-and-forth battle with the Gremlins, pulling away in the end for a 70-63 win.
Combs was the head coach at Harrisburg for 18 seasons. In that time, he compiled a 331-238 record. He won two state championships, in 2006 and 2008.
Combs’ journey as a coach began in 1995, where he was an assistant coach at Moberly.
In 1997, he got his first head coaching job at Louisiana, where he held that job for two years.
In his first year at Louisiana, his team made it all the way the district championship game, where they lost to the Palmyra Panthers.
Combs said his team during the 1997-1998 season was senior-heavy. For the 1998-1999 season, he had a young team.
“We had a long year, but one where I really became a coach,” Combs said. “When you’re going through a tough season, it’s when you find out if you can really coach or not. It was a learning experience, for sure.”
Combs said the Combs family has lived in Harrisburg for generations. His mother taught at Harrisburg for 37 years. He attended the Harrisburg School District, and played basketball. He was named All-State his junior and senior year, he said.
“It was home, and it was my dream job,” Combs said. “I always knew I wanted to come here and coach at Harrisburg.”
He played college basketball for four years. He spent two years at Moberly Area Community College, then played two years at Columbia College.
Combs said his mother was an influence behind him wanting to become an educator. He also said he wanted to be connected to the game of basketball.
He said he was inspired to become a coach by his coaches in high school, people like Todd Lowry and Lowell Eaton. When he was a kid, his summer jobs were hauling hay and working at basketball camps, he said.
“I just love to be around the game,” Combs said. “I love to teach the game, and teach the fundamentals and hone skills. Early on, I learned real quick that great players make great teams. If your players aren’t where they need to be, then you need to work on them first. It’s not about X’s and O’s. It’s more about players, and that’s one of the things that has driven me as a coach.”
He began his journey as the head coach at Harrisburg in 1999. In his first season as head coach, his team had an 0-5 start, and were 1-7 at Christmas.
His team was able to turn their season around. They defeated the Glasgow Yellowjackets in the semifinal round of the district tournament on their way to a district title. They defeated Cairo in the district championship.
“That was so special for those kids, because they spent a few years with a losing record and didn’t have much success,” Combs said. “I kept telling them to just trust me. Keep working through the process. Keep working every day in practice to get better. We played our best basketball at the end. They won a title, and it was one of the most rewarding district championships I’ve had. Those kids started it all.”
Harrisburg’s first trip to the Show-Me Showdown under Combs came in 2003. They finished the season in fourth place.
Combs said the Bulldogs had setbacks in 2004 and 2005.
In 2004, the Bulldogs were undefeated (27-0) going into the district championship. They were met by Salisbury, who also were 27-0. Salisbury prevailed, and Harrisburg’s undefeated run came to a screeching halt.
In 2006, Harrisburg returned to the Show-Me Showdown. Combs said his team had some setbacks throughout the season, but caught a magical run towards the end.
The Bulldogs defeated state-ranked Salisbury in the district championship that season.
The next two teams Harrisburg defeated on their way to Columbia were Tipton and Canton, both state-ranked.
Harrisburg defeated West Platte 63-43 in the semifinals before beating Marionville 41-38 in the title game. Marionville were the defending state champions at the time.
Combs and the Bulldogs returned to Columbia the following year. After losing 61-50 to Eskridge in the semifinals, they defeated Osceola to seal third place.
Harrisburg made their third straight run to Columbia in 2008, but they almost saw that run end in the sectional round.
The Bulldogs were matched up with Knox County. The Eagles led by as many as 13 points during one part of the game. Harrisburg rallied back and were able to force overtime. The Bulldogs won the game 67-65.
After escaping Knox County, Harrisburg caught a wave of momentum, and rode that wave all the way to the championship game, where they defeated South Iron 51-44. It was Combs’ second state championship in three years.
Seeking to repeat as state champions, Harrisburg made their fourth straight trip to Columbia in 2009.
Their chance at repearting fell just short, as they lost 60-55 to Portageville in the championship game.
“That was the year we talked about what kind of banner we wanted to win at the first day of practice,” Combs said about a discussion he had with his team before the start of the 2008-2009 season. “Do you want to settle for a small banner, or do you want to win a state championship banner again?”
Combs was named as the new Superintendent of the Harrisburg School District before the end of the 2016-2017 academic year.
Since he is taking on this new position, he has stepped down as the head boys basketball coach at Harrisburg High School.
He said he is unsure about when or even if he will coach basketball again anytime in the future.
again anytime in the future.
“That’s a tough question,” Combs said. “I don’t know for sure. You never say never. I love the game. Watching my son play AAU this spring and seeing him at the highest levels, with kids at the national level, there’s so much talent out there and it just gets your juices flowing.”
Combs said coaching basketball is something he has done since he left college.
“I think it’s something I’ll do at some point,” Combs said. “I don’t know what level. Maybe it’s as the junior high coach when I retire. I could come back and coach junior high here as a hobby. I don’t think I’m done. I don’t think I’ve coached my last game.”