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story.lead_photo.caption Former Cabot Lady Panthers and University of Arkansas at Little Rock star Kim Sitzmann was recently hired as the head girls basketball coach at Searcy High School. Sitzmann coached the Alhf Junior High School girls basketball team the previous three seasons. - Photo by Mark Buffalo

For Kim Sitzmann, basketball is her life.

Sitzmann, 30, was recently hired as the new girls basketball coach at Searcy High School, replacing Michelle Birdsong, who still teaches in the district. Sitzmann was the junior high girls coach at Alhf Junior High School the previous three seasons.

“I’m just very passionate about it,” said Sitzmann, who is a 2006 graduate of Cabot High School. “I know it very well because I’ve been involved with it nonstop since seventh grade. I know the insides and outsides of it. I guess I absorb the game really well, and I like teaching it. I’m very confident in teaching it, so it’s fun. It’s not a job. It’s enjoyment. That’s why it consumes 90 percent of my life, because it’s fun.”

Sitzmann was a three-sports start in high school, playing basketball, soccer and volleyball, which she stopped after her sophomore season. Sitzmann led the Lady Panthers basketball team to the semifinals of the Class AAAAA State Tournament her senior season while playing at the Jack Stephens Center on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

The next time she stepped onto that court at UALR, she was a member of the women’s basketball team, playing for Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame coach Joe Foley.

While at UALR, Sitzmann helped lead the Trojans to three Sun Belt Conference titles and a trip to the NCAA Women’s Tournament in 2010. UALR beat Georgia Tech in the first round, then lost to Oklahoma in the second round.

From there, Sitzmann’s journey in basketball took her around the world. After trying out for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA, she was cut during training camp. She took that opportunity to play one season each in both Holland and Germany. She then played two seasons in western Australia.

“I absolutely loved it,” Sitzmann said. “I miss it every day. If it paid more, I’d probably still be playing.”

Sitzmann said playing overseas was mind-opening for her. She was living away from her family in Cabot, living with strangers and having to figure out what food to eat, how much money equals what. She had foreign languages being spoke around her in Holland and Germany.

“I didn’t always know what was really going on,” she said.

But basketball was her way to communicate.

“It gets you to see that there’s all these different sides of the world,” Sitzmann said. “Everybody is different, but we’re also the same. Basketball is universal. The same game we play here we can play with Europeans or Australians. It was just really cool to see the cultural differences, but also the similarities.

During her two seasons with the South West Slammers of the State Basketball League near Perth, she led her team to its first championship in 2012.

“I got the opportunity go out there after I got home from Germany because another player got injured,” Sitzmann said. “My agent asked me if I wanted to go out there.”

Sitzmann joined the Slammers six games into the season. They were 6-0 and on their way to a championship.

The Slammers beat the Rockingham Flames 85-48 in the championship game. Sitzmann was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, as she scored 24 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out 3 assists and had 3 steals.

“It was definitely the highlight of my career outside of going to the NCAA Tournament,” Sitzmann said.

She played a second season with the Slammers, and they were beat in the semifinals of postseason play.

Sitzmann planned to return for a third season but could not get a work visa, only a sports visa, which would cut her earnings in half. She had worked a second job with disabled youth in 2013.

“Anyone could do it with on-job training since it wasn’t a specialty job,” she said. “I didn’t get approved for a work visa. I decided it wasn’t financially worth it.”

When Sitzmann graduated from UALR in the spring of 2010, she was lacking her teaching certificate. She earned a bachelor’s degree in health science and physical education. But because of playing basketball, she did not do the student-teaching aspect.

To be able to teach, she had to get her license. She passed all the Praxis testing and wanted to enroll in the Arkansas Professional Pathway to Educator Licensure through the Arkansas Department of Education. However, Sitzmann missed the deadline.

Sitzmann was a substitute teacher in Cabot in the spring of 2014. She was a paraprofessional for the gifted and talented classes at Cabot Middle School North during the 2014-15 school year. During that time, Sitzmann said, she was teaching individual basketball drills in an attempt to stay involved with the game.

With the APPEL program, a teacher can be enrolled in the program and start teaching. Sitzmann said Crowder told her the Searcy junior high basketball position was available. Sitzmann applied and got it.

“So my first year coaching was my first year in the APPEL program,” she said. “I completed it at the end of my second year of teaching and got my official five-year teaching license.”

During her three years as the Searcy Junior Lady Lions coach, Sitzmann won a conference championship her first year, beating Beebe in the finals of the River Valley Conference tournament.

However, Sitzmann said running a junior high program was “overwhelming.”

“Being brand new to the teaching side and basically running the junior high program, there was a learning curve,” she said. “I know the game, so that side of it wasn’t scary. Adjusting to dealing with teenagers every day and the actual school days … there was a learning curve.

“It was overwhelming. I was anxious. It was an exciting anxiety, not a scary anxiety. To start at that level, that big of a school, as my first job, the only word I can think of is blessed.

“To be able to start at that place with that solid of a job — that doesn’t happen often. Now to move up to the high school in the same district, it makes that transition that much easier.”

Sitzmann said she’s excited about the opportunity to coach at the high school level.

“I’m very grateful,” she said. “I know that there were a lot of very qualified candidates that applied for the position. So to be given the opportunity with just three years of junior high experience, it’s very humbling. It’s also given me that extra boost of enthusiasm and energy. Where I was kind of getting into a lull at the junior high spot, it’s a burst of energy to get in there and get back with these kids that I’ve had for the past three years and see what we can do and see if we can create some excitement about basketball in Searcy.”

Searcy was 3-26 last year. The Lady Lions were 10-20 during the 2016-17 school year and 8-17 in 2015-16.

“They’ve struggled the past few years,” Sitzmann said.

A year ago, the Lady Lions had 10 healthy players and played no junior-varsity games.

“The big key for me right now is numbers,” Sitzmann said. “Because it hasn’t been a winning program, kids are going other places to play. We lose our best athletes to other schools. To get them back and keep the good ones in Searcy and want them to play for Searcy — that is No. 1.”

During summer ball so far, the Lady Lions have 17 players.

“With that 17, I have enough for a varsity and a JV,” she said.

Sitzmann said she is working the players hard during the summer months.

“We’re getting them in the gym and keeping them active and just trying to muster up the excitement of it,” she said. “Right now, they are like ‘this is tough. She’s running us.’

“If they stick with it and see the results, by the end of the summer and see how much easier preseason can be because we’re in shape, I think that will be an energy booster for them. They will be excited when they get to see the results of their hard work.”

Sitzmann said playing for both Crowder and Foley has definitely been a big influence on her. Sitzmann said playing for Foley at UALR was hard.

“It was very hard, very time-consuming but very rewarding,” she said. “It taught you how to be disciplined, how to maintain a tough schedule, how to fight through adversity while maintaining good grades. It was very rewarding.”

Sitzmann said playing for Crowder got her ready to play for Foley.

“She’s one of the best high school coaches in the state,” Sitzmann said. “I feel like [Foley and Crowder] have the same philosophies. She runs the motion offense and she plays man to man defense. She’ll mix it up way more than Coach Foley, but it’s the same concepts. Having that background and that work ethic already instilled in me before I ever got to college made my transition to college easier. So she definitely played a big role in that preparation.”

Crowder said she is proud of what Sitzmann is doing.

“I’m so excited for her,” Crowder said. “I think she’s going to do a great job. She is such a hard worker. She did what you asked her to do as a player. She was a joy to coach.”

Sitzmann said Crowder is also “a good person.”

“She looks out for her kids,” Sitzmann said of Crowder. “She makes sure everyone is taken care of. If you’re struggling with something, she’s there for you, which is huge.

“Both of them know the game very well and try new things, learn new things, watch videos and study the game. That is instilled in me, and I have them to thank for that.”

Staff writer Mark Buffalo can be reached at (501) 399-3676 or mbuffalo@arkansasonline.com.

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