At some point, it’s not unusual for doubt to creep into a coach’s mind.
Doubt about coaching ability. Doubt about the team. Doubt about the program.
Fortunately for Lincoln East, girls basketball coach Dennis Prichard never let those lingering questions get him down.
Prichard guided the Spartans to a 23-5 record this season and the school’s fourth Class A state title. It was his first at Lincoln East after leading Falls City Sacred Heart to Class D-1 championships in 1998, 1999 and 2000.
Prichard is The World-Herald’s Nebraska girls high school coach of the year.
The Spartans’ championship justified Prichard’s faith in his squad as he headed into his 10th season as Lincoln East’s head coach. He led the school to the state tournament in 2007 and 2009, but had come up empty the past six seasons.
“To be honest, I was starting to question whether I was the right fit at Lincoln East,” Prichard said. “But after talking about it with some other coaches here, it gave me the confidence to keep moving forward.”
Prichard, a 1981 graduate of Falls City High School, certainly had the coaching pedigree. He compiled a 254-77 record in 14 seasons at Sacred Heart, leading his final eight teams to state.
Flush with that success, he gave college coaching a try as the women’s head coach at Peru State. It didn’t prove to be a good fit. His teams, which were going through rebuilding challenges, went 17-74 in three seasons.
“If I didn’t at least try coaching in college, I thought I might regret it,” he said. “Maybe I should have learned the ropes more as an assistant, because I found all of it — especially the recruiting — very difficult.”
Prichard returned to his comfort zone in 2006 when the Lincoln East position opened up. He went back to teaching social studies and coaching high school girls, which he had learned to do so well at Sacred Heart.
“There was an obvious difference between coaching Class D and Class A,” he said. “But in the end, a lot of the things I taught my teams were the same.”
Prichard also had learned there were subtle differences between coaching girls and boys. He had experience in both at Sacred Heart: He coached the boys in track, basketball and football.
“Girls can be a little more sensitive and tend to hang onto things you say a little longer,” he said. “You just need to know each individual and understand which buttons to push.”
After overcoming any coaching doubts heading into this season, Prichard said, he had a good feeling about his team. The squad had worked hard over the summer, led by senior guard Grace Barry.
“In the past, our team had some girls who were good athletes but not necessarily basketball-first players,” Prichard said. “It was different this year, and I could see the work they were putting in.”
The Spartans got off to a 7-1 start but went 4-4 over the next eight games, including a discouraging road loss Jan. 29 against Class A power Bellevue West. Lincoln East had held a 17-point lead, but couldn’t hold it as the Thunderbirds pulled away to win by 10.
The turning point for the Spartans came the next day. Facing another Metro Conference power on the road, Barry scored a game-high 26 points as Lincoln East gutted out a 57-51 victory at Millard West.
It started a 12-game win streak, culminating in the state title.
“After we won that game, the girls started dreaming big,” Prichard said. “I was just happy to be along for the ride because there was this feeling that nothing was going to stop us.”
Led by the talented Barry, the Spartans headed to state with a 20-5 mark. They were seeded eighth in the eight-team field, but that didn’t bother Prichard.
“It was a wide-open season, and I think every team felt like it had a chance to win it,” he said. “I know we did.”
Lincoln East opened the tournament with a 64-56 win over top seed South Sioux City, then outlasted Millard South 57-47 in double overtime. That set up a rematch in the final against Millard West, which had won its first two state tourney games by an average of 21 points.
The game was tied in the closing seconds until the Spartans ran an inbounds play to Barry, who found an open teammate under the basket for the winning layup.
Barry said it was a play the Spartans had been practicing all season but hadn’t run once — until the championship game.
“When we ran it in the final and it worked perfectly, I thought ‘Wow, Coach really knew what he was doing,’ ” she said. “He was so prepared for that moment, and it won us the title.”
Barry, a University of Nebraska at Kearney recruit, credited Prichard for everything he has put into the Spartans’ program.
“He’s a phenomenal coach,” she said. “I can’t imagine any coach putting in more hard work because he completely buys into every player and makes you the best you can be.”
Prichard said his team deserved credit for successfully running that three-game gauntlet of state tournament games.
“Whenever we needed a big shot or a stop, we’d get it,” he said. “And it seemed like it was a different player stepping up each time.”
That state title, the coaching honor and Barry’s comments should alleviate any doubts in Prichard’s mind about his time at Lincoln East. Positive sentiments also poured in to the coach via email following the Spartans’ title.
“I was bombarded with messages from Falls City people and Lincoln East alums who told me how proud they were of that championship,” the coach said.
Prichard added that his assistants and his family should share in the credit this season. His family consists of wife Pam, 10-year-old daughter Natalie and stepdaughters Ellie Volkmer and Hannah Jacobson.
“Looking back on everything during my career, I feel blessed in a lot of ways,” Prichard said. “I couldn’t have done any of this alone.”
Barry said she’ll always remember this championship season and the man who made it possible.
“I learned by how hard he worked how hard I had to work,” she said. “He inspired me, and that’s something I’ll never forget.”
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