Rattler Q&A with Head Coach Jim Zeleznak
By Derek Smolik, Sports Information Director
With the Rattlers opening up the 2006-07 season tonight in Kingsville against Texas A&M University-Kingsville, we sat down with head coach Jim Zeleznak to talk about this year’s team.
Zeleznak is entering his second season as the Rattlers mentor. However, he is far from a stranger to the program, having worked for over 28 years at the school as an assistant men’s basketball coach and head coach in softball. He has helped lead the Rattlers to two of their five national championships, one as a head coach and one as an assistant.
During his time as assistant coach for the Rattlers, the team compiled a 530-253 record. He served as the chief recruiter for the Rattlers and coach Buddy Meyer. In that role he helped bring in some of the top players in school history, including All-Americans Ricky Hooker and Pete Hansen.
In his first season as head man for the men’s basketball program, he led the team to a 14-14 overall record and a third place finish in the Heartland Conference. As always, expectations are high again this season, with HC coaches and sports information directors picking the Rattlers to finish second this season.
Zeleznak played basketball for the Rattlers as a freshman and on the junior varsity team before switching his focus to coaching. He holds a bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s and a master’s degree from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University). Zeleznak is a native of Shawnee Mission, Kansas. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children, John Patrick and Kaeleen Marie.
What are your general thoughts as we head into the season?
“Early in the season I’m a little concerned. Practice time with a lot of our kids has been severely hampered by injuries. We have most of those kids back now, but they missed a lot of repetitions early on and when you are trying to play the way that we do, it’s critical. I’m a little bit concerned in the early part of our year about our offensive execution. I think that we will continue to improve, but it’s certainly something that we’ll have to do a lot of work on. We just have to try to get through it by working hard and by playing solid defense.”
“I think that this team has the ability to be a quality team. If they keep on working hard, good things will happen. We are relying on some transfers to give us some quality minutes. As has been the case during my 30 years here, a lot of times it’s a little bit slower for the transfers because they are coming from a different system. It takes a little time for them to adjust and we’re asking them to give us quality minutes right away. In saying that I think that they have made a lot of progress in the last month and I think that it’s going to be a work in progress.”
This is your second year as a head coach. Is there anything that you are doing differently this year with a year under your belt?
“That’s a great question. Our staff has grown up. There are certainly some things last year that I felt I could have done better with and we’ve addressed that. I think that, as a staff, we’re a little bit more cohesive. We’ve always taken the approach that it’s one day at a time. We did that to a large part last year, but there’s areas that we’ve grown up on. I’d like to think that it’ll go smoother this year, than it did last year.”
Talk about your first game, against Texas A&M-Kingsville?
“Well it’s been a great rivalry for a long time. No matter what kind of team that Kingsville has had, it’s always been a very competitive situation. I think that Pete’s (Peterson) done a great job down there. They have a lot of experience back and I’m sure that they aren’t happy with how last year finished. They got off to a great start, then kind of got bogged down it looked like at the end of the year. Their expectations are very high. Going on the road, it’ll be a great early season test for us.”
How nice is it to have 17 home games, including a 12-game homestand from the end of November through the middle of January?
“It’s good from the standpoint of our team being relatively inexperienced in our system. I think that part of its good. Unfortunately our first two road games are two of our toughest, against Kingsville and Tarleton State, who are the favorites to win the Lone Star Conference south (division) this year. Those will be two really good tests for us. We have a slew of home games after that, but it’s against really quality competition. I don’t know that it’s going to be at home or on the road. Our guys will just have to go out and play really hard and try to get a little bit better as we go along. However, to answer your question, I’d really rather be at home than on the road.”
What would you say the team’s strengths are heading into the season?
“I’d like to think our point guard play, just because we have two experienced point guards coming back. You never know once you start playing games. Rebounding has been a strength and I think that with our athleticism and some of our returning players I would think that will be again. Hopefully our defense will be a strength. I think that ultimately our offense will be a strength. I think that we’re a little more athletic than we were last year.”
Talk about the Heartland Conference race this season.
“I think that the conference will be very tough up and down the line, just like last year. It will just come down to how quickly people come together.”
Talk about the race for the Heartland Crown last year.
“I think that as the season went on teams got better and the race got very even. Teams that won games early really got the jump on people and those wins turned out to be big. It was a crazy race last year.”