The sounds of bouncing balls and squeaking shoes fill the gym, as players dart to and fro, attacking the basket in a series of dribbling drills. State championship banners hanging from the rafters oversee the action, and provide a constant reminder to the players below of the legacy of success of the program.
“Dribble, stutter, then cross,” shouts Jim Pendergrass, the new coach at the helm of the powerhouse Kickapoo Lady Chiefs. “Drive hard about two dribbles, stutter, then cross,” he shouts again, as he oversees the team’s off-season individual workouts.
Pendergrass is no stranger to the Kickapoo program. In fact, he was an assistant coach for the Lady Chiefs from 2001-03, a run which was capped off by an undefeated season, state championship, and national ranking at the end of the 2002-03 season. Pendergrass returned to Kickapoo last season to serve as an assistant coach under his longtime friend and colleague, Stephanie Phillips.
The Lady Chiefs lost almost 75% of their scoring from last year’s 25-6 squad which finished third in the state in Class 5, but the program’s biggest loss was felt on July 10 when Coach Phillips passed away after a nearly three-year battle with colon cancer. It was a loss that went far beyond the
“Steph touched a lot of lives,” said Mark Fisher, Athletic Director for the Springfield Public Schools. “It was not only through her basketball coaching, but the way she handled adversity. We all learned a greatlesson from her. She fought until the end, and her teams reflect that same determination.”
“The way she was is what’s going to be remembered,” said Pendergrass of Coach Phillips, “from the impact she had on people’s lives to the relationship she had with everyone. She was able to touch a lot of people, and that stuff sticks with you your whole life.”
“She taught me the game of basketball,” said Assistant Coach Leslie Hanchey of Coach Phillips. “When I played for her at Kickapoo, looking back, it was the best four years of my life. She demanded nothing but the best from every single member on our team. Sure, there were days when we couldn’t stand her, and days we cried because we were so mad, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“She not only taught us how to be the best basketball players we could be, but she also taught us how to be the best individuals we could be,” added Hanchey, who played under Coach Phillips at Kickapoo from 2001-05. “We were expected to act like mature adults wherever we were because we were part of Kickapoo basketball and everyone was watching us. I can honestly say I worked harder for her as a player than I did for any other Coach I ever played for—even when I played college ball.
“She made me realize that basketball isn’t everything,” continued Hanchey. “Games will be played, practices will be tough, and days will be long, but at the end of the day, it’s making sure those girls know you love them, and it’s making sure your family knows how incredibly important they are to you. It’s about not being afraid to say how you really feel. Coach Phillips made me realize, ultimately, that I want to be just like her.”
Senior Jordan Graham is no stranger to adversity, having missed nearly half of last season with a torn ACL. After returning to play an integral part in the march to Columbia, Graham tore her other ACL during an AAU tournament this past July, and will be out of action until the end of December at the earliest. It will be the second straight season that the 5’9” senior will start the year rehabbing an injury. Coach Phillips’ long battle has put things in perspective for Graham, though.
“Seeing what Coach (Phillips) went through puts everything in perspective,” said Graham, who will be counted on to play and defend all five positions upon her return. “What I’m going through is nothing at all. My injuries are not life-threatening. Everything happens for a reason.”
“Coach Phillips had a huge impact, and not only with basketball,” said Annie Armstrong, one of two returning starters from last season. “You could always go to her with anything. She was a great coach in basketball, and in life.”
“Coach Phillips showed everyone what a true fighter looks like,” said Hanchey, who was a member of both of Coach Phillips’ state championship teams. “She showed everyone that she was going to fight her disease until her last breath and that’s exactly what she did. She showed everyone that it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog. And she fought. Hard. Every single day. She fought to show her players how much she loved them and loved the game of basketball. She fought to show the school that she wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
“Most importantly, she showed us what having faith really means,” added Hanchey. “She knew that the odds were against her but she never lost faith in herself, she never lost faith in her support group, and most importantly, she never lost faith in God. She showed us that even though she was dealt an unfair hand, that God was in control, and she had complete faith in Him and His plan.”
Coach Phillips’ passing was especially difficult for Pendergrass. The two were “best friends,” though Pendergrass does not remember exactly when that friendship began. The two attended college together at Southwest Missouri State, and later coached together at different times under legendary coach Cheryl Burnett. “It was a relationship that grew over time,” he said.
After leaving Kickapoo following the 2002-03 season, Pendergrass spent almost four years at the University of Michigan, alternating between roles as Director of Basketball Operations and Assistant Coach. He returned to Southwest Missouri in the summer of 2007 for a brief stint as Assistant Coach at Southwest Baptist University before becoming the Director of Basketball Operations at Missouri State prior to the 2007-08 season.
Coach Pendergrass became the head coach at Walnut Grove in time for the 2008-09 season, and led the Lady Tigers to a 17-10 record. Following the season, his longtime friend came calling once again, and after one season, Pendergrass left Walnut Grove to be an assistant coach at Kickapoo.
“I had a great job at Walnut Grove,” said Pendergrass. “From a professional standpoint, it was a difficult decision. But from a personal standpoint, when your best friend needs your help, it was an easy decision. We had talked periodically about me coming back. It had been six years since we had last coached together. We both had changed over time, but a lot was still the same as it ever was.”
Coach Phillips’ illness limited her time and ability to coach last season, but she had her trusted friend to help guide the team in her absence. In many respects, the two were one and the same as basketball coaches. “Steph and I had a lot of the same philosophies basketball-wise,” said Pendergrass. “That’s what made us a great coaching team. If she said something, I’d be thinking it, and vice-versa. We really had an unusual coaching relationship. I had much more freedom coaching than most assistants have with their head coaches.”
Coach Phillips was able to return in a limited capacity for the state tournament run, though. “When she was out, and we were coming down to the end of the season, I would talk to her about the team, but not every day,” said Pendergrass. “I kept thinking about how much I wanted her to coach the team in Districts.” Pendergrass knew he had to have the approval of Scott Phillips, Coach Phillips’ husband, who thought it was a great idea.
Pendergrass called Coach Phillips and said, “I want to coach with you one more time. I want to see if we can do it again.” Phillips was surprised and responded with, “let me think about it.” As the team got closer to Districts, Pendergrass’ phone calls to Phillips grew more frequent, as did his talk of basketball. “I talked basketball more and more, trying to get her blood going again.”
Coach Phillips returned from treatments in Minnesota in time to attend Senior Night. A few days later, when Pendergrass asked her again about returning to coach the team in Districts, Phillips responded, “I think I want to try it again, but I’ll not be at practices, and I’m not going to do any scouting.” It became a day-to-day arrangement, whereby Coach Phillips would come to games when she felt up to it.
After the team defeated Branson and Glendale to win Districts, it was off to face Hillcrest for the Sectional title at SBU in Bolivar. “She didn’t feel like coaching against Hillcrest,” said Pendergrass. “She said, ‘you’ve got ‘em tonight. I’m just going to sit here on the bench.’ By the end of the first quarter, though, she said ‘I’m feeling better now,’” Pendergrass said with a hearty laugh. Phillips coached the team the rest of the game. “I think about her every day I go out on the court, and I miss her,” said Pendergrass. “But I’m really glad I got to share that time together, because it was really special.”
When the time came to name a replacement for Coach Phillips, Pendergrass went through the interview process just like everyone else, but it was an easy decision for the district to make.
“When we were looking at hiring a girls basketball coach at Kickapoo, we really were looking for someone that met several qualifications,” said Fisher, the district Athletic Director. “First, we wanted someone with outstanding basketball knowledge. Second, we wanted someone who knew the area and knew the landscape. Third, we wanted someone with some familiarity with the program. Jim filled all three of these.
“He understands the program,” added Fisher. “Plus, he already had a relationship with these young ladies. It was a difficult time with Stephanie’s illness, and Jim was there to help these young ladies through it. He’s a workaholic. If there is a game being played and the lights are on, he’ll be there.”
“Jim is such a passionate basketball coach,” said Hanchey, who played two years at SBU before becoming an assistant coach at Kickapoo in 2007. “He really cares about the girls, not only as players, but as individuals. He is always telling them that if they need anything to not hesitate to ask him. He would go to the end of the world for these girls. He’s an all-around compassionate, funny guy. But he also is business when it comes to basketball. When it is time to play, it’s time to get serious. He demands, just like Coach Phillips, the best from the girls. He will do whatever he can to make them better people and better basketball players.”
Assistant Coach Erica (Warfield) Brummel echoed the sentiments of Pendergrass as a workaholic. “There’s not a night that goes by that he’s not at a basketball game,” she said. “He’ll go to elementary and middle school games. He’s always texting me updates with scores.” “Jim’s biggest passion is basketball,” said Hanchey. “I tell him all the time that he sleeps, eats, breathes, and dreams about basketball.”
Brummel believes that it has been—and will be—a seamless transition from Coach Phillips to Coach Pendergrass. “A lot of things are the same,” she said. “Basketball-wise, they (Phillips and Pendergrass) are very similar. Coach Pendergrass got to put in a lot of his offense and defense last year. This year is more of an addition—adding on to what we did last year.”
Armstrong agreed that there is familiarity with Coach Pendergrass. “Even though Coach Pendergrass was the assistant, he still had a lot of input last year,” she said. “This year will still be the same—there’s a lot of familiarity.”
Rachel Schroff, a 5’7” junior sharpshooter, also sees a lot of similarities between Phillips and Pendergrass. “They’re both very big with the small things,” she said. “They both like for us to do everything right the first time. It’s school first, then basketball. They’re both very loving and strong-willed. Both get involved in your life.”
“They both demand 100% from their players at all times,” said Hanchey. “They both emphasize team defense over individual offense. And they both think that the players should put the team ahead of themselves. Also, they both expect their coaching staff to bring 100% to all practices and games. Lastly, and in my opinion the most important thing, is they both emphasize that the little things that go unnoticed, such as rebounding, steals and assists, are equally as important as scoring points.”
Pendergrass will have his work cut out for him, as the Lady Chiefs look to replace four letter winners (including three starters) from last year’s squad. Gone are a couple of 1st-Team All-Staters in Casey Carroll and Makenzie Smith, as well as a defensive game-changer in Amanda Landolt. Joslyn Arthur, a key contributor off the bench last season for the Lady Chiefs, also must be replaced.
Graham, who played in only 11 games last season due to a torn ACL, is the top returning scorer at 10.2 points per game, but she will be out with her second ACL injury until late December at the earliest. Armstrong, a 5’8” junior, was a starter last season, and was a weapon from behind the three-point arc, connecting on 43.4% of her attempts last season. Liz Reida, a 5’7” senior and returning starter, is the quickest player on the team, and will be counted on to provide ball pressure defense for the Lady Chiefs.
A pair of 5’7” juniors, Schroff and Zoe Allen, will be counted on heavily to step into key roles this season. Allen will be counted on to provide pressure defense, while Schroff, who saw significant minutes off the bench last season for the Lady Chiefs, is a good shooter with great basketball instincts and a high basketball IQ.
In addition to the lost production from a year ago, the Lady Chiefs also lost significant leadership from the departed seniors. The theme of “stepping up” is apparent to the returning players. “The seniors last year were really good leaders,” said Armstrong. “This year, I have to step up as a leader, especially vocally.”
“We are going to have to play as a team,” said Schroff. “We have to have the younger players step up. Those of us who saw varsity action last year will have to step up and work as hard as we can all the time. We have to show the team what’s right and what needs to be done.”
“If you have leadership, you’ve got a lot,” said Pendergrass. “It’ll take time to develop. Everybody will have to step up into new roles. It will take time to replace what we lost, but the team will take on a whole new identity. Our success will depend on how fast everybody gels together. What we need is experience. I’ve been pleased with the team’s work ethic, though.
“It will all come down to how well we defend and how well we rebound,” he added. “If you do those two things well, you’ll have a chance to win every night.”
As usual, the Lady Chiefs’ schedule features a gauntlet of some of the area—and state’s—best teams. “Every game is going to be a challenge with our schedule,” said Pendergrass, “but that’s exciting. You know where you’re at all the time. You can’t take a night off.”
Regardless of what experience the Lady Chiefs return for the 2010-11 season, as the state championship banners hanging in the gym signify, the bar has been set high for the Lady Chiefs’ program. “We are going to have to work hard to get back to State,” said Graham. “We have to show a lot of the younger girls what the program’s about.”
The Lady Chiefs have ridden an emotional roller coaster in 2010, from the high of the state tournament run, to the lowest of lows with the passing of their coach, friend and mentor. Coach Phillips maintained the legacy of success that was passed to her when she took over the helm at Kickapoo in 2001, winning state championships in 2003 and 2005. That legacy has now been passed to her friend, Jim Pendergrass.
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.