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Jim Lawinger goes home

March 25, 2014

Opportunity knocks and Jim Lawinger answers.

Those in the coaching ranks of prep basketball and softball in the area have usually been very happy that he did.

Lawinger, the longtime coaching staple at Sussex Hamilton, has served as assistant coach to Steve Showalter for the powerhouse Germantown boys basketball program for the last 10 years.

Showalter adroitly notes that Lawinger has done his best work serving as "a calming influence" on Showalter's own sometimes mercurial tendencies.

"There were days I sometimes didn't know what we'd do without him," said Showalter.

Now Showalter and the three-time WIAA state champions will have to. Lawinger, who served as head coach of the Sussex Hamilton girls softball team for 34 out of the last 35 years, has decided to move on.

The former high school hoops standout of the 1960s at Platteville High (even Jim Smallins' Milwaukee Lincoln juggernaut had a hard time stopping him in one state tournament game) is going home. In fact, he's home already.

The day after the Warhawks won that gritty third state championship with a 48-42 decision over Neenah on March 15, Lawinger and his high-school sweetheart, wife Donna, packed up their bags and put their Menomonee Falls home up for sale and headed off 2 1/2 hours west to the heart of Grant County near the Iowa border.

"I told Donna that I really came to like this house (in the Falls)," he said, "But as I like to say, family comes first."

The two still have brothers and sisters and other relations down in Platteville, and his daughter Jaime and her family, including grandchildren Jacob and Josh, live down there, too. Their son Jess, who lives in the Madison area, also is getting married this summer.

He also has another reason for going back, as Lawinger — "Lou" to everyone who knows him — is not done coaching.

The man who said "he was born to be an assistant coach" is taking up the head coaching job of the Platteville High School softball team this spring. It was a job he acquired last October.

"I didn't plan on it," he said, "but I always seemed to have been blessed with opportunity. Things come up at the right time. Somebody leads me by the hand or turns me in the right direction."

"And I think I have a lot of energy left."

The Platteville women should benefit from that, as Lawinger led the Hamilton softball team to the WIAA state tournament an impressive eight times, the last time in 2012. He also had a stint as boys basketball head coach at Hamilton, leading the Chargers to their last state appearance in 1987.

He had lived part-time in the Platteville area in recent years after retirement from teaching. In fact, he helped the UW-Platteville basketball coaching staff a bit last fall and had been asked to be part of the staff.

Lawinger was flattered by the offer but said he had a commitment to keep in Germantown.

Showalter knew that his veteran coaching pal was itching to move on, but he asked one favor of him anyway a few years ago.

"I asked him if he'd stay until Jake (Showalter, the coach's youngest son) graduated," said Showalter, "and he said yes. ...He proved to be a man of his word."

Lawinger had coached through the entire tenure of Steve Showalter's All-State older son Zak (who graduated in 2012) and his boss wanted Jake to get the full benefit of Lawinger's expertise, too.

Not that it was easy to do this season. Lawinger, Steve Showalter and the Warhawks had to battle high expectations (which were eventually fulfilled), a state-record winning streak (which was broken at 69) and personal disappointment (highly-publicized player arrests and suspensions).

There was a lot of conversation this winter among the staff about how to deal with all this. Lawinger, a methodical worker, likes to research things and then come up with an answer. That process has paid off before, as he was once offered a ring after consulting a title-winning UW-Waukesha program.

Lawinger view was that the Germantown staff, including the other varsity assistant, Aaron Womack, as well as Dan Doedens, Lee Flasch, Mike Shaw, Jason Bauman, Steve Martin and others, all chipped in and helped the Warhawks regain their swagger and energy.

"They're all real good people," he said. "Delegation has become a strength (of Showalter's). He knows what he likes to do and what he doesn't like to."

Lawinger said he saw a lot of his old boss, Sussex Hamilton legendary hoops coach Rich Ludka, in Showalter. Ludka led the Chargers to four state tournament berths with Lawinger by his side from 1976 through 1980.

"They're almost clones of one another," said Lawinger. "They're occasionally hard guys to get along with, but each is very competitive. They only want the best out of you and in turn, they'll give you their best, too."

Which Lawinger has always done and will always continue to do.

"You've got to love the game (be it softball or basketball)," he said, "and most kids who go out for sports do. Because of that, be it the number one player or the number 18 player (on the team), I'll put the same effort into each of them."

Germantown and Sussex Hamilton will miss that tenacity, while his hometown of Platteville will now reap the benefits of it.

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