Lazer focus. That is all that Karl Grau has had for the past eight seasons since he took over the girls basketball program at Bluffton High School. It has paid great dividends, with perhaps the best run in program history. Grau led the Tigers to back-to-back Sectional titles in 2018 and 2019, two of just three postseason crowns in the program’s history.
Grau was focused on girls basketball and building a program. When the head coaching job on the boys side opened up at Bluffton recently, he had to take a couple of days to decide if he wanted to change that focus. Once upon a time, he was on the path to be a head coach on the boys side.
That path came to an end this week when Bluffton named him their new boys basketball coach as he now takes over the defending ACAC champion program.
“It was an opportunity for a new challenge. I just saw the opportunity and thought this would be a good fit,” Grau said. “You never know when you are going to get another opportunity and that seemed to me like the right time.”
After taking those few days to think about it and his long investment to the girls program, Grau made the move back to the boys side, where he was elsewhere prior to his time at Bluffton.
Prior to coming to Bluffton, Grau spent time as an assistant under Glenn Heaton and Mike Novell at North Side, Tony Lavorata at Homestead and Marty Beasley at Carroll. That long run on the boys side was shelved though for the chance to have his own program with the Bluffton girls. During his time with the girls, he went 81-106 and won those two Sectional titles in 2018 and 2019, the first postseason crown for the program since their previous lone title in 1998.
He had to consider whether or not he truly wanted to leave what he had built and put time into on the girls side, with what he projects to be more promising seasons coming.
After all, it was not a fast build on the girls side. In the four seasons prior to Grau taking over the program, Bluffton averaged 3.25 wins per season. In his final four years with the program, the Tigers averaged 12.5 wins per season and showed a lot of growth in their entire system as he helped turn Bluffton into a championship program.
During that time, Grau says that being a head boys coach was never a goal because he was so driven to make the girls program as good as it could be. He says he thought about the boys side from time to time, but it was never directly a goal to go back to the boys side before the perfect storm of timing arrived this summer when Chris Benedict left for Whitko.
“Instead of trying to force myself into situations, I’ve had the opportunity to just go into different situations. It sort of just naturally evolved into the point that I am at right now,” Grau said.
“Bluffton has a special history and tradition and great coaches. It is neat opportunity. The community is very supportive of basketball and they care about their basketball team and they care about the kids and coaches. It is a good opportunity to be in a community where they do care about the program and continue that tradition.”
Bluffton has a rich championship history with 32 Sectional titles all-time in boys basketball, the most recent coming in 2019. Each of the past three coaches – Benedict, Kevin Leising and Wayne Barker – have won at least one Sectional crown with the program.
“My number one focus is going to be to invest in the players, to get to know them and build those relationships. That is my number one goal and winning will be a byproduct of all the time we invest in each other,” Grau said. “The best teams I have had the opportunity to coach or be around are close, were connected and had great teammates and communication between players and coaches. That is what we want to establish.”
Bluffton graduated four seniors who played significantly from their 2019-20 ACAC championship team, but will return Outside the Huddle All-Area player Hayden Nern to lead the way into his senior season. Nern averaged a team best 17.4 points per game to go with 5.5 rebounds per game. Juniors Harrison Schreiber and Lukas Hunt also will return after playing quality minutes last season.
Grau says he would like to see Bluffton be a great defensive team, which was a staple for his girls teams over the past few years: to try and guard teams the best they could every night. Offense will be an area where he’d like to play with a little bit of pace while continuing to be fundamentally sound as he sees where the team’s athleticism and quickness are. Grau knows a big part of the process will be finding a way to reacclimate himself to the boys game.
“I would love to play to our players strengths; I have some things in mind I would like to do with them. But, I really want to see what they can do first. I need to learn about who they are and what they can do on the court,” Grau said. “Once I know that, I will have a better idea.”