Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation

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Kelly Kapferer Kruse

By CHRIS LARICK

For the Star Beacon

Kelly (Kapferer) Kruse's illustrious basketball career might have never begun except for a pair of shoes.

Yes, Kruse (pronounced "Cruisey") had played basketball with her brother Kurt in the family's driveway at an early age. But she wasn't sold on playing organized basketball.

Her dad, Bob wanted her to play in the seventh grade, but she wavered. Then ...

"I had my eye on a brand new pair of Air Jordans," she said. "My dad said I could have them if I played basketball."

Kruse, a 2000 Jefferson graduate, became so proficient at the game that she was a lock to make the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation's Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility. And she did.

"I wasn't anything great," she said of her start on that seventh-grade basketball team coached by Al Graper. "I had some good friends like Julie Herendeen, Mindy Giffin and Becky Hamper playing. It helped us develop our friendship."

At that time, Kruse stood just 5-foot-7 or 5-8 and played shooting guard.

"I wasn't a post player," she said. "I was very coordinated and was part of the press-breaker. Becky (Hamper) was always the tallest. I didn't catch up to her until my freshman year.

"But that worked in my favor. I learned to handle the ball. (Opponents) weren't used to guarding a post player who could do that."

 Kruse and the Falcons had a great eighth-grade year under coach Jack Thompson, losing just one game.

"(That loss) hit us hard," Kruse said. "It was against Riverside's junior high team, J. R. Williams."

Between her freshman and sophomore years, Kruse "just shot up" to over 6-feet tall. Naturally, she was moved to the post.

"I developed my post skills, starting with volleyball," she said. "I was a middle hitter and learned how to use my height to my advantage. Being tall and athletic are great (attributes) to start a career."

Kruse and Hamper had been doing conditioning with the varsity basketball team since the eighth grade, which helped them acclimate to the team. 

"At first we were overwhelmed as any eighth-grader would be," Kruse said. "But we were invited to go to camp at Perry and Mount Union. It was a big difference all of a sudden, playing with sophomores, juniors and seniors."

Some of those upperclassmen were less than delighted that talented freshmen like Kruse and Hamper would supplant them in their roles. Some resentment was anticipated.

"It was something we needed to be prepared for," Kruse said. "Some of the girls were three or four years older than us. It was hard to take their positions. But we were able to earn a spot in the starting lineup."

During Kruse's freshman year, she started for the Falcons with Hamper, Kiki McNair, Kelly Crowell and Laura Gregg, three seniors and two freshmen. 

"Becky and I had a good freshman year," Kruse said. "But we played in (the upperclassmen's) shadows."

When the three seniors graduated, Kruse and Hamper became the heart of the team, post players who dominated opponents.

"Becky and I were interchangeable," Kruse said, "the Twin Towers. We complemented each other very well."

The other Falcon starters were Herendeen, Shannon Mellin and Felicia Coles. Jefferson had won the NEC championship Kruse's freshman year, but the Falcons had to rebuild when she was a sophomore. They were able to reclaim the title her junior year and, according to Kruse's recollection, may have finished second to Conneaut, led by Jessica Olmstead, when Kruse was a senior.

Much of their success has to be attributed to their coach, Rod Holmes, the winningest coach in Ashtabula County high school history.

"Mr. Holmes was very supportive, very much believed in me and Becky (Hamper) from Day 1. Being a very timid freshman starter could be intimidating," Kruse said. "He reminded me I had worked hard to get where I was. I always appreciated that.

"He was a laid-back type of coach. I didn't know any different kind until I got to college. (Some) coaches scream in your face and swear at you. He was a very nurturing coach who empowered you."

During her years at Jefferson, Kruse accumulated 1,588 points and 1,204 rebounds. She had a unique trifecta: First-team All-Ohio in her sophomore, junior and senior years; Player of the Year in the NEC all three years; and Player of the Year on the Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County all of those three years. In her senior year she was named Ohio State Player of the Year in Division II. Even in her freshman year, she was first team all-league and all-county and Honorable Mention All-Ohio.

In volleyball, she was Player of the Year in both the NEC and in Ashtabula County her sophomore, junior and senior seasons.

Not surprisingly, she was heavily recruited starting in her sophomore years. Conneaut's Jessica Olmstead and Kruse attended the Blue Star Basketball Camp after her junior year, and Kruse was chosen as the MVP of the camp. 

"I had been a big fish in a little pond (at Jefferson)," she said. "That gave me a lot of confidence that I could make (college basketball) happen."

Though Kruse visited other schools like Oral Roberts, Kent State, Ohio University and Southern Florida, Bowling Green appealed to her more.

"I don't know why I picked Bowling Green, though I'm glad I did. It was only three hours from my home, so my parents (Bob and Denise) could see the games," she said. "Bowling Green played schools like Kent, which were closer for them."

Kruse made an early verbal commitment to Bowling Green during volleyball season her senior year and signed a letter of intent right before Christmas her senior year.

As a freshman she became the sixth man for the Falcons, the first off the bench, playing power forward and center, though she was only 6-1 1/2 or 6-2, small for a center even in those days.

She played in every game, starting about half of them her freshman year, a pattern she repeated as a sophomore.

"I liked (being sixth man)," she said. "It gave me a chance to find the rhythm of the game. My role had changed (from the one I had in high school). It was a different world."

The Falcons weren't that good her freshman year and the coach, Dee Knoblauch, was fired. Curt Miller came in from Colorado and took the reins and started to rebuild the team.

"My freshman year we were bad," Kruse said. "There was no continuity and the team didn't know how to play together. There were things going on outside the realm of basketball and the coaching staff wasn't stable."

"They wanted someone to come in and win," Kruse said. "And he did.

"When he came in, it was a rebuilding year. Obviously, he was inheriting someone else's recruits. I think he would have recruited me. He told me he wanted me, so that was in my favor."

Still, after her sophomore year, Kruse decided she needed some time away from organized basketball. So she quit the team, giving up her scholarship in the process. 

That year revitalized her and she went back for her junior year (actually her senior year academically). First, though, she had to prove herself in practice. 

"I worked out and tried to show (Miller) I was committed my junior year," Kruse said. "I was chosen as a starter, but I asked not to be a starter but to come in and play forward or center. We had a young class of great players. I was a utility role player who would get rebounds and set picks and be a leader out there."

At Bowling Green Kruse was an art major, taking a Bachelor of Fine Arts, graduating in 2005, intending to be an art teacher, get her master's and become a college art professor.

"But I decided that's not what I wanted to do," she said. "I didn't want to go back (to graduate school)."

She moved to Cincinnati , having friends from Bowling Green who lived there, and took a job in bank management. She has spent the past 10 years in different banks. Most recently she took a job with the Cove Federal Credit Union in Edgewood, Kentucky, near where she now lives.

She met her husband, David, when both were members in a band (the Stray Mafia), Kelly as a singer and David as a bass player, in 2008.

David works at Cincinnati Bell. The couple was married in 2010 and have three boys: Adam, 8; Nolan, 7 and Kaleb, 2 1/2. The family lives in Kentucky, about 15 miles from Cincinnati.

Kelly's siblings all had successful athletic careers at Jefferson, particularly in basketball. Kurt is married and lives in the Stow area, working for Hyland Software. He played baseball for the College of Wooster.

Haley is married and lives in Painesville after playing volleyball for Youngstown State. She works as a nurse. 

Jamie is also now married, residing in the Stow area, but she still works in Ashtabula as an Occupational Therapy assistant. She played one year of volleyball at Walsh before returning home, transferring and commuting to Kent State Ashtabula.

Kelly has become a runner and participates in two half-marathons every year, in addition to keeping active with the children.