Chris Strathman doesn’t spend game day on the McPherson sideline as he has for the past 23 years.
For his Bullpups’ first three games of the 2018-19 season, he has been sitting either at the hospital or home with a laptop in front of him. He now watches his players from afar.
Strathman has been in recovery from a cancerous colon tumor since Nov. 21, the day before Thanksgiving. He announced the news on Twitter on Nov. 28. He said when the doctors told him, he had the same reaction as anyone.
“It was extremely difficult to hear that news, and your mind just starts racing 100 MPH and goes in a lot of directions you really don’t want it to go when you hear that,” he said.
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Strathman underwent surgery just after the doctors found the tumor. The goal was to extract it, ensuring the cancer would not spread through his body. When the surgery was complete, doctors told Strathman the tumor was out.
They believed he was cancer free.
“I think most coaches can probably relate to this to some degree during our seasons, and for most it is more than we would like to admit: It is so easy for our priorities to get flipped during the season and allow that sport that we coach to just consume us mentally,” Strathman said. “I am as guilty of that as anyone. This will always serve as a reminder that nothing should come before my faith in God and my family.”
Before the operation, doctors told Strathman he wouldn’t be able to coach for the rest of the fall semester. He would miss McPherson’s first six games since capturing the school’s ninth state championship a little more than eight months earlier with a 62-58 overtime win over four-time defending champion Bishop Miege.
The news crushed him.
“I just miss being with our staff and our players on a daily basis,” Strathman said. “I love the teaching part of practices and enjoy seeing kids improving daily, weekly as we progress through a season. Everyone would miss the games and I do as well, but I miss the practices as much as anything right now because that is where we have the most impact as coaches.”
Although Strathman hasn’t been with his team, he said the support he has received has been nothing short of divine.
“It means a ton to know that so many people are pulling for me and praying for our family through this,” Strathman said. “That is true of the McPherson community, but it goes way beyond that. McPherson has been great, and we just really appreciate the support of the community. We have been blessed by many friends through meals, gift cards for groceries and meals, the list goes on.”
McPherson is one of the best basketball towns in Kansas, one of the best in the U.S. Friday night, the Bullpups put that atmosphere on display as they hosted defending Class 6A champion Derby.
Derby’s senior class will likely go down as the most accomplished in the school’s girls basketball history. But the senior Derby Panthers hadn’t beat the Pups in two tries, including a 54-49 loss last season. It was Derby’s only defeat of the year.
Friday, the Panthers flexed their muscles with a 47-35 win. The Pups struggled to score inside against Oregon-State bound Kennedy Brown, a senior Derby center standing 6-foot-6. McPherson was outscored in the paint 10-0 in the first half and 18-4 for the game.
But maybe most important, McPherson wasn’t rattled without Strathman on the floor against arguably the state’s best team. The Pups cut the Panthers’ lead to six at one point in the third quarter.
Strathman, the orchestrator behind one of the state’s great programs, could only watch from home on doctor’s orders on Friday. His interim replacement, Mike Reith has been in McPherson for almost three decades. He has coached with Strathman for 15 and considers Strathman one of his best friends.
Reith said he was with Strathman shortly after the doctor delivered the bad news, which made the good news days later so rewarding.
“It was hard,” Reith said. “There were tears. We prayed together. I said, ‘We’re going to be here for you. God’s got you. Whatever happens is in his hands.’ “
Maggie Leaf is one of McPherson’s senior leaders. She has gotten to know Strathman well over her high school career. She said the first few days without her leader were tough.
But with an entire community behind them and him, Leaf said they have started to play with an added cause.
Strathman has harvested a great deal of respect across Kansas. Even the coach he would have faced Friday, Derby’s Jodie Karsak, said though she doesn’t know Strathman on a too personal level, she admires everything he has done for the Pups and McPherson.
“The thing that sticks out for me is his humility,” Karsak said. “It’s never about him, and I just really respect that. He does it the right away in McPherson.”
Strathman’s road to recovery is underway, and a pack of Pups is behind him. He said that has been the key through such a challenging time. He said he is feeling better every day. If all goes to plan, he is set to return after the new year as McPherson hosts Circle.
“I have felt the power of prayer more during this time that at any other time in my life,” Strathman said. “Really has been amazing.”