By Blake Schnitker
When I initially introduced myself to Dr. Jason McDowell, greeting him with a handshake and a hello, he reciprocated the salutation with a noticeably hoarse tone. “That’s because I coach basketball,” McDowell explained. “I guess I won’t be able to yell very much tonight.”
While many people know him as Dr. McDowell, the optometrist at Jacksonville’s International Eye Care location, others know him as Coach McDowell, roaming the sidelines as Westfair Christian Academy’s head basketball coach. Starting out as the school’s grade school basketball coach back in 2005, McDowell has coached a number of players for the entirety of their careers, including his two sons Clayton and Carter.
“I started coaching as an assistant (for the grade school team) when my son Clayton was in the 3rd grade,” McDowell said of how he initially got involved in coaching. “Randy (Cooper), the Principal, was coaching the grade school team at the time and he was looking for someone else to do it, and so I took over as the head coach when (Clayton) was in 4th grade, and he’s 18 now, so this is my tenth year coaching and my fourth year coaching the varsity team.”
Originally from Ottumwa, Iowa, McDowell was a two-sport athlete in high school, playing both basketball and baseball – although he did admit that the latter sport was his best. McDowell went on to attend Hannibal-LaGrange University, where he played baseball and studied biology before heading off to optometrist school.
With an enrollment of just (#) students, Westfair’s varsity basketball roster ranges from high school seniors all the way down to seventh graders – and from time to time, even a handful of players who are home schooled. Rather than co-op with another school in the area (like they do with Routt Catholic High School for football), Westfair’s basketball team plays an independent schedule that includes other smaller schools from around Illinois, Iowa and Missouri – schools that they often play multiple times during one season.
“We had trouble finding games at first because finding a school our size is hard,” McDowell said of his team’s schedule. “Two years ago, we only played eight varsity games because one, the weather was bad and two, we just couldn’t find anybody to play. But last year, Jennifer Lacy, the secretary, and I put a lot of work in to find more games and we ended up having 18 games. This year, we joined a new conference and we’re going to play 25 games or more.”
“We go all the way to Danville, with First Baptist Christian School being in our conference,” said McDowell. “Most of the schools are like us in that they have between 90 and 150 kids. The farthest we travel is about two hours when we go to east to Danville or west to play a school out of Bethel, Missouri.”
Splitting his time between optometry and coaching – both the varsity and junior varsity teams – McDowell says that “from the beginning of October to the end of January, I basically have no life.” Yet despite all the time and effort he puts in, he’s proud of what he’s accomplished in terms of building Westfair’s basketball program, and admits that the familiarity between him and his players is often very helpful in certain situations.
“Just coaching them for so many years, they usually know exactly what I want from them in terms of running a certain play or setting the defense,” he said. “They don’t always execute it perfectly, but most of the time it works out.”
As far as the remainder of their schedule, Westfair has five home games throughout the month of January, with their next two scheduled for January 15 and 19, against First Baptist Christian School out of Danville and Trinity Lutheran from Arenzville, respectively.