Joe Auer has coached in eight state championship games in basketball or baseball, with his team winning four times.
He has handled the pressure, the second-guessing, and the scrutiny that comes along with managing prodigies such as Mike Pelfrey and Perry Ellis.
In the quarter-century he has coached at Heights, Auer’s resilience in the big moment has defined his career.
Auer is a skilled tactician who takes pride in his preparation. But nothing can prepare him for this next challenge.
For 32 minutes on Friday, Auer will pretend. He will tell himself it’s business as usual and Kapaun Mount Carmel is but the next team in the way of the Falcons’ march to a City League title.
He will pretend as if the opposing team’s center and captain — starting this season for the first time — hasn’t been living in the same household for the past 18 years.
For 32 minutes on Friday, Auer will pretend his son, Nick, is not his son, but his adversary.
“If I allow myself to think of it any other way, then I might have to remove myself from the gym,” Auer says.
Born a coach’s son
The first request of his second son came before he was even born.
It was November 1995 and his wife, Kay, was due any day. Coincidentally, Joe was entering his first season as Heights’ coach and about to conduct his first week of tryouts with more than 120 hopeful prospects. Said mostly in jest, but with a tinge of truth, Joe asked his wife to hold off going into labor until after the tryouts.
Like a true coach’s son, Nick complied and was delivered in the early morning of Nov. 17 — the day after the final cuts were made.
“He was already helping the team out,” Joe says.
A Falcon or a Crusader
In his formative years, Nick was immersed in the Heights program under his father. Joe took him everywhere — practices, games, in the locker room — and even had players serve as babysitters.
Nick idolized the players and dreamed of donning the red and black someday for his father.
“If you would have asked me as a young boy, no doubt, I would have said I was going to be a Heights Falcon and play for my dad,” Nick says.
But the Auers are devout Catholics, which meant Nick was raised attending parochial schools. As high school neared, the decision loomed. Would he follow his father to Heights or would he go to Kapaun with his friends?
After much deliberation, Nick decided to continue his friendships at Kapaun, where he would also receive the Catholic education he desired.
“I don’t have any regrets,” Nick says, “but it is always in the back of your mind. What if?”
An Auer family showdown
In the Auer house, sports and winning are everything.
Joe has transformed a corner of the family’s basement into an Auer exhibit of excellence, displaying his four state titles to go along with the three state golf team championships his sons, David and Nick, have won at Kapaun.
So Friday’s game has evoked the best of Joe, the man who was always a competitor at heart, and Nick, the son who was raised to be an even more fiery competitor.
“There’s already been some back-and-forth and some trash talk between them,” says Kay, who must remain neutral and supportive at the same time.
“I want him to try his absolute hardest to beat the snot out of me,” Nick adds. “Once the ball goes up, may the best man win and we’ll talk after the game at the dinner table. But right now, he’s my greatest enemy.”
Emotions will run even higher the second time Heights and Kapaun square off, which will be Kapaun’s final home game.
“So I’ll get to walk him out to halfcourt,” Joe says, “and then go try to ruin his senior night.”
As far as the game is concerned, Joe recalled last season ,when Nick made a three-pointer against Heights that created confusion that will surely happen again on Friday.
“I’m his dad first,” Joe says. “A little part of me wanted to pat him on the back, but another part of me wanted to yell at my kid who didn’t close out on the shot.”
For 32 minutes on Friday, Joe and Nick will desperately try to best one another.
Who wins and who loses is uncertain, but how the game will end, for the Auers at least, is assured.
“I’ll give him a big bear hug and I’ll be relieved to just have it over with,” Nick says. “At the end of the day, I still love the man more than anything.”