Sitting in a trophy case at the north entrance of Leavenworth High School is a 4-feet tall, first-place trophy for the 1996 Harold Thomas Interstate Classic, accompanied by a picture of the basketball team that won it.

James Vanek, Leavenworth High School’s new athletic director, beams as he stands next to it Tuesday morning, peering at himself in the picture 18 years later.

“I love this place,” Vanek said. “We’ve got phenomenal student-athletes in this building. A lot of those athletes are 3.5 GPA or 3.2 and above GPA holders. So they’re awesome athletes, as well as great students.”

Vanek began his Pioneer career as a student-athlete. He played basketball under head coach Larry Hogan and was a four-year varsity letterman in tennis.

After high school, he attended Emporia State on a tennis scholarship.

After a brief student-teaching job at Olathe North High School, Vanek landed his first and only teaching job at his alma mater.

In addition to teaching math, he was the head coach for the boys and girls tennis teams and was an assistant coach for the basketball team.

As a player, Hogan said Vanek’s competitiveness and work ethic was enough to bring him onto the basketball staff when he returned to Leavenworth as a teacher.

“I knew he would do a great job,” Hogan said. “Seeing him around school with the players, you could tell that he related to them very well and kept them on task as a young coach.”

It was an eighth-grade Wayne Simien who dubbed Vanek “Big Game James” after Vanek beat him in a game of HORSE as a young coach.

Years later, after attending one of Simien’s games at the University of Kansas, Vanek stuck around after the game in a crowd full of people wanting to see the Jayhawk star.

As he stepped into the crowd, Vanek said Simien immediately looked at him with a smile and yelled the nickname he’d earned years before.

When Vanek was promoted to assistant principal after 11 years of teaching and a district nomination for Kansas Teacher of the Year, he said it was his involvement with players that he missed most.

“One of the hardest things for me, transitioning from the classroom to becoming assistant principal, is that I had to give up coaching,” Vanek said. “When we had that conversation about (the job), this was one thing that was going to get me that much closer back to the coaches and the student-athletes. And I said, ‘Man, I’d love to.'”

Shawn Terry, Leavenworth’s previous athletic director, began fielding calls from other districts in the spring and it was then that Principal Thomas Barry first reached out to Vanek.

After years of working with him as a teacher, coach and an administrator, Barry said when the job opened up, Vanek was the first person he approached.

“His performance as an assistant principal led me, first and foremost, to that conclusion,” Barry said. “He cares very deeply about this community, this school and especially these kids and helping them to be successful. Between those two things, it was a no-brainer for me.”

Since the hiring at the beginning of the summer, Vanek has already begun filling his role. After girls track and field coach Clayton Pritchard took a position as an assistant track coach at the University of Nebraska, Vanek and Barry worked together to promote boys track coach Willis Willmeth to the head coach of both programs.

Vanek said he’s pleased with the state Terry left the Leavenworth athletic program in, but he said his goal is to get more students on the field and the court for the Pioneers.

“The only thing I want to improve on is getting more kids involved,” Vanek said. “I think there’s a lot of diamonds in the rough, so to speak, that don’t play any sport. Hopefully I can try to help motivate them to at least go pursue a sport.”