With his players’ ears perked, eyes attentive and minds ready to learn, head coach Courtney Pritchett guides the team through footage from previous games. His comments are both stern and supportive, his basketball knowledge, extensive and obvious.
“We have to box out there,” Pritchett says, commanding the attention of his players. “That’s a good shot, if we can make it, that’s a good shot.”
Pritchett, who previously coached women’s basketball at Andrew College in Georgia, is in his first year as head coach at Auburn High School. Prior to Pritchett, the AHS girls basketball team enjoyed a great deal of success under 16-year head coach Terryland Dawson. For a program with such a well-known expectation of excellence, the pressure of being a first-year head coach can be overwhelming. However, through 20 games the Lady Tigers are 17-3, and while Pritchett knows what his team is capable of, he still feels that pressure.
“Coming in, there was a lot of pressure that I put on myself to try and kind of keep that standard going — to try and keep the name ‘Auburn girls basketball’ as a known name in the state, which it has always has been.” he said
While being a first-year head coach is often an exceptional challenge, Pritchett knew that Auburn, a team that went 19-11 the previous year, was capable of competing at a high level.
“Well you know, I think we’ve got a lot of talent, we’ve had a great group of seniors that are leading the charge,” he said.
The Lady Tigers are a veteran-laden group. With six seniors on the roster, Pritchett has a bevy of experienced talent in his arsenal that he can use to win games. Among those seniors, Pritchett highlights a few in particular.
“Casey Core has had a great season scoring and rebounding the ball. Jada Askew has been great, Shaniya (Holley) has done a great job of taking leadership as a point guard and, of course, Sara (Strohmeyer) has been really great shooting the ball,” Pritchett said proudly.
Outside of the Tigers' group of seniors, Auburn is led by freshman point guard Olivia Porter, who played on the team last year as an eighth-grader and currently leads the Lady Tigers this season in points (12.8), assists (3.6) and steals per game (3.3). While many freshmen sit on the bench until their games develop further, Pritchett recognizes Porter’s impressive talents.
“Olivia is a special athlete. I’ve coached a lot of young ladies and she has a great upside and is going to be a great Division-I player one day, and she’s learning how to be that,” Pritchett said. “She’s doing a great job of being a ‘go-to’ in terms of needing a bucket or needing some offense, but she has to grow in leadership, she has to learn how to be a leader and that’s hard as a ninth-grader. Telling a freshman to lead six seniors, it’s hard.”
In this situation, the player-coach relationship is in no way one-sided. For all the praise that Pritchett has for his star freshman, Porter’s opinion of her coach is equally as high.
“Coach Pritchett is definitely unique,” Porter said. “He’ll stomp his foot and he’ll get onto you but then he’s nice to you at the same time.”
Pritchett notes that while he is proud of how the team has played thus far, there are still things to work on going forward. Efforts to “go back to the basics,” shooting drills, layups, boxouts and strength and conditioning — this is the approach that Pritchett is taking in advance of their upcoming games against Loachapoka and Smiths Station.
For players like senior guard Shaniya Holley, while they aren’t many differences between last year’s team and its current iteration, one thing sets them apart — leadership.
“We’ve all been playing together since seventh grade so we have great chemistry,” Holley said.
And while 17-3 is a more-than-respectable start to the season, both the coaching staff and players know this team is capable of the excellence so often found throughout the program’s history.
“I think this year, since it’s our last year, we want to be great and do great things together,” Holley said.
Since Dawson’s retirement from coaching last March, Pritchett stepped into a role that came with obvious expectations. The Lady Tigers made an Elite Eight appearance the previous season and although he was coaching college at the time, the decision to come to Auburn was a no-brainer.
“This is a great school, great school district, the standard of excellence is here and I figured if I ever wanted to challenge myself as a coach, I’d come to somewhere where the standards are through the roof and try to find a way to excel and try to find a way to be great in this atmosphere,” Pritchett said.
So far, Pritchett and the Lady Tigers have handled those expectations as they currently sit atop the standings for the region.
“One of the things coming into the season that I think we really wanted to know was who we were, what was our identity as a team and what were some of the things we were able to do right and what were some of the things and some of the areas we had challenges in so we could get better,” Pritchett said.
Led by six seniors and an exceptionally talented freshman, Pritchett and the Lady Tigers have their sights set on a state championship. The Lady Tigers will take their next step toward that goal on Saturday when they host Loachapoka at 4 p.m. before traveling to Smiths Station on Tuesday.