KOKOMO, Ind. — It was great to be a Frankfort High School athlete in the 1990s.
It was a time of great success for the Hot Dogs — especially in 1995, when all four of its winter sports teams won sectional and conference championships, and the volleyball team won its first-ever sectional championship.
Basketball player Eric Echelbarger — who also ran cross country and track — and Heather Hayes, a standout in volleyball who also threw shot put in track — learned how to be successful athletes playing on those teams. Now, they are translating those skills into record-breaking careers as coaches for Indiana University Kokomo athletics.
Hayes, in her sixth year as volleyball coach, led the Cougars to the NAIA national tournament for the fourth year in a row with a team that was undefeated in the River States Conference. She earned her second conference Coach of the Year award as well.
In Echelbarger’s first season, the men’s basketball team clinched the top spot in the RSC West Division, with a program-best 23-6 record — including being undefeated on their home court.
Both coaches credit skills and mentoring at Frankfort High School for part of their coaching success.
It was a great time to be there,” said Echelbarger, who graduated in 1998. “I had great role models to look up to like Heather. She was a great athlete, who did it the right way.”
Hayes, a 1996 graduate, knew of Echelbarger in particular because his father was the boys’ basketball coach and her brother played on his team.
It’s a small-town thing,” she said. “It was impossible not to know of each other in a school that size, especially being athletes.”
Both went on to college athletic careers. Hayes played volleyball at University of Montevallo in Alabama, and then at University of Indianapolis. She returned to Frankfort High School as a coach and teacher before taking the reins of IU Kokomo’s program.
Echelbarger played basketball at Minnesota State University Moorhead, and then at Olney Central College and McKendree University, both in Illinois. After graduating from McKendree in 2003, he joined the basketball staff as an assistant coach.
By 2018, he was ready to step up into a head men’s basketball position. He heard about the job at IU Kokomo and phoned Hayes for more information.
When I saw that job opening, I knew Heather was there and she ran a great program,” he said. “It was nice to know there was someone to call and get the straight scoop.”
Hayes was excited Echelbarger was among the candidates.
I recognized his name right away,” she said. “You’re looking for the right fit for the program, and I knew the Echelbargers were good people, and he would be a good fit at IU Kokomo.”
Both say they have similar intense coaching styles, with focus on taking care of details and fundamentals of the game. Coincidentally, both left-handers were coached by their fathers.
Echelbarger’s father is Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Marty Echelbarger, who is now retired in southern Indiana who watches all of IU Kokomo’s games online.
He definitely has some advice,” Echelbarger said, laughing. “He was a hard-nosed coach, but he instilled a pretty good work ethic in all his players.”
Hayes’ father, Greg Boots, coached her in basketball, and learned to coach volleyball by going to her practices. He’s been an assistant coach to her for many years.
While they say Frankfort High School athletes were competitive and wanted to outdo each other, as colleagues at IU Kokomo, the competitiveness has become camaraderie.
It’s important that we support each other through the ups and downs of our profession,” said Echelbarger. “I feel like we have good chemistry among the coaches at IU Kokomo.”
Hayes said they are excited to see other Cougar teams win. “We want all of our teams to be successful,” she said.Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.