Getting to know … Karen Ellis

IRON MOUNTAIN – To those who follow local high school sports, Karen Ellis is the Iron Mountain High School girls basketball coach and coed track coach. But beyond the court and the track, Ellis is so much more — one of eight sisters, mother of two daughters and a son, a business owner, a musician, a gardener, a cook, a baker, a reader of classic novels and a nature lover.

Too busy to sit still.

“I’m not really a relaxing-type person,” she said. “I’m go, go, go. I can sit down and watch a movie and eat popcorn but not until everything’s done. If I feel like I’ve wasted the day, I get anxious.”

Recently, the Felch native sat down for a wide-ranging conversation about all her life’s dimensions.

Q: Where do you fit into the group of eight sisters?

A: I’m number six.

Q: Did all of you live at home at the same time?

A: I was in kindergarten when my oldest sister was a senior. And we still all live within about half an hour to an hour of each other. And we all still get together.

Q: So, who got to use the bathroom first for hair and makeup?

A: We had a large room in the basement, I’d say is was about 16 by 24 that was a huge walk-in closet. You’d go in and there was a rack for T-shirts, there was a rack for jeans. And then on the back wall my dad (Doug) put a big kitchen counter with a big full-length mirror, but he turned it sideways and that’s where everybody did their hair and makeup.

Q: Poor dad, huh?

A: He had a man cave.

Q: Was yours an athletic family?

A: My dad was an athlete in high school. He played basketball and ran track at Felch. He was very good. My mom (Emmy Lou) was a cheerleader, that was about the only sport they had for girls at Felch. But growing up, it worked out very well. Either you did dishes with Mom, or you went outside and played basketball with Dad. So we all played basketball.

Q: What sports did you play in high school?

A: I played basketball, three years on varsity, volleyball, ran track and I was a cheerleader for four years.

Q: How did you become involved in coaching?

A: I started with my stepson’s fourth grade basketball traveling team in probably 2004. Then I started coaching soccer and little league baseball. I ended up coaching for quite a few years with SAY (Soccer Association for Youth).

Q: When did you start coaching basketball at Iron Mountain High School?

A: About six years ago, I was hired to coach JV. The following year, it was COVID year and there were a lot of issues going on, so (the new varsity coach) decided that it was too much and resigned early in the season, so that year I coached the JV and the varsity.

Q: Was that a tough season?

A: It was a nightmare because it was a condensed season, everybody had to wear masks, we were nervous about COVID, we didn’t know what it was yet. Nobody was allowed in the stands, and I had only five varsity players.

Q: This was your fifth year as varsity girls basketball coach. What was the high point of the 2023-24 season, the game in which your team played its best?

A: The Calumet game (a 64-55 win at home in Feb. 27). I walked away from that game very proud of our team and with what we accomplished. And it wasn’t just the score at the end of the game, it was the teamwork, the chemistry out there. Finding each other, rebounding. I thought that game was our best.

Q: We don’t see many women coaching boys varsity basketball. Do you think you could do it?

A: I coach boys track and I really like coaching boys for track. They work very hard and they know their roles. But to be honest, I don’t think I would be very successful coaching boys basketball because the game is too fast. It’s a very fast game and I don’t think I would enjoy it.

Q: Do you have to coach boys in track differently that girls in basketball?

A: You definitely coach the boys different that you do the girls. The biggest challenge I think in coaching girls is it’s much more emotional. And I’m not a typical girl.

Q: What do you mean?

A: I was out picking rocks, hauling trees and digging trenches for my summer childhoods with my mom and my sisters. (Her father worked at the paper mill). My mom had this vision of what she wanted this one-acre parcel to look like for a rock garden. And now it’s beautiful, but then it was just a pile of sticks and dirt.

So coaching girls sometimes, when they get a little emotional, that’s tricky. That’s challenging for me.

Q: So, it’s in your nature to just say suck it up and play?

A: Absolutely. Suck it up and move on, next play. I don’t care what your hair looks like, let’s go. (laughs).

Q: Given that’s your nature, how do you adapt to the girls as a coach?

A: This year we implemented something new and this is something that (Athletic Director) Brad Perry brought to the table. I had a sit-down with each one of the girls before the season to talk about their individual goals and to talk about anything that worries them or bothers them. We just had an open-door policy. And there is sometimes you can see that something’s going on with the girls.

I can be a little bit firm on the court, not necessarily harsh but just straight forward. But if I see that someone was bothered by something, I would pull them aside and say, “Hey, you good? What’s going on? Just to get on that personal level.

Q: So what’s fulfilling about coaching?

A: It’s like gardening. You plan these seeds and you just watch them blossom. Watching them grow as individuals, it’s so rewarding.

Q: Do you have a musical background?

A: My mom comes from a singing family and my dad comes from a singing family. My grandma has a beautiful voice. So when we were growing up, my mom had us singing on stages, all eight of us, performing at different churches and any kind of gatherings. My sisters could always sing higher than I was able to, so I always had an ear for harmony. So I like doing background harmonies.

Q: Are you still involved musically?

A: My husband is in a band. And we’ve been trying to put a duet together all these years. But with my coaching, we don’t have a lot of time. But eventually, we will do a duet.

Q: Preference, hike or bike?

A: Hike.

Q: Ski or snowmobile?

A: Snowmobile. I tried skiing and I got stuck in the middle of the bunny hill. I needed help to lift my skis up.

Q: Kayak or jet-ski?

A: Kayak.

Q: Cheeseburger or pizza?

A: Cheeseburger. With jalapenos.

Q: What is the grossest food for you?

A: Avocados. The texture. Anything with a soft, mushy texture. When I was younger, my dad made me eat everything on my plate and I hated the texture of canned peas. And there were canned peas on my plate, and I had to finish them and I got sick.

Q: If you had all the time to spend as you wish, what would you do?

A: I love reading the old classic novels. Right now, I’m reading “War and Peace.” And I’d get better at gardening and preserving.

Q: Sounds like you enjoy nature. What do you get out of spending your time that way?

A: We used to live by the Iron Mountain stadium but I didn’t feel like me there. I needed to get in the woods, so we built a house four miles outside of town. And I feel like myself again. I love the smells and I love the sounds.

We have a pond, and we do a lot of projects. Like I’m doing rock walls again. I never thought I’d do rock walls again.


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