By Nick Snow
STILLWATER, Okla. —
Clay Stephens has always been a small-town sort of guy. He grew up in a small town and began his career coaching at places like Hennessey before spending the past 12 years guiding Frontier’s girls basketball team to three state championships.
Now Stephens and his three state championships will be coming to the big city of Stillwater as the new coach for the Lady Pioneers.
“We think we hit a home run with it,” Stillwater athletic director Tucker Barnard said. “He’s a great, great basketball coach. I’ve just met him, but by all accounts he’s a good man. He’s had success everywhere he’s been — three state championships at Frontier and was runner-up with two state tournament appearances at Hennessey. We’re very, very fortunate and very, very happy. We had a lot of applicants for this job and it took a lot of work just to narrow the list down. We talked to some really good people, but man, do we feel like we came out with a winner.”
Stephens will take over for Carl Treat, who resigned last month for undisclosed reasons. Treat’s squad was 13-10 during a campaign marred by injuries in his final season as Stillwater’s coach.
“Coach Treat has done a good job here for several years,” Barnard said. “I know that’s hard for everybody and it was hard for him to make that decision, but it was just something he felt like it was time for.
“A lot of our girls were really upset about coach Treat’s departure, as they should be. That’s the guy they looked to for several years and has been their leader. That’s hard for them to deal with.”
Stephens, on the other hand, comes in fresh off a state quarterfinal berth at Frontier with a 23-6. Now he’s hoping to work similar magic for a Pioneer squad that’s had its ups and downs.
“I’m very excited,” Stephens said. “I don’t really know that much about the girls there, but we’re pretty close to Stillwater so I kind of keep up with it a bit. I’m excited about it. I think it could be good.
“My expectations every year are the same — we need to make it to the state tournament,” Stephens said. “Now in Stillwater, is that realistic? I would hope so. I don’t know, but that’s my expectation going in. Are we going to win every game? Probably not. But we need to start out and kind of build toward the end and playoffs. Hopefully we’ll be peaking at the right time and play well in the playoffs and have a little success there.”
If it’s one person that can get Stillwater on the right track its Stephens.
“When you have somebody who has experienced that kind of success, he can lead the girls through it,” Barnard said. “He knows what to expect before it happens. He knows some of the pitfalls that come with success. I think he’s going to know some of the obstacles and how to avoid some of those obstacles. It’s just a great opportunity for our girls.”
To get there, Stephens said he will implement his own system — the same system that led Frontier to a state championship two years ago.
“Our success (at Frontier) is based on the fact that we had some pretty good players — and we’ve been fortunate to have some good players — but we also have a system and I think it works,” Stephens said. “Hopefully, I can implement our system and get the girls to buy in to our system. If we have a little talent, then we can try to duplicate what we’ve done here. I’m not saying that we’re going to be able to do that because Stillwater is in Class 6A and that’s a different competition, but we’re going to give it a shot.”
No doubt, Stephens will have his fair share of challenges in the road ahead. Stillwater graduated five seniors last season and look to be fairly young. But even though they may be young, they will have some varsity experience.
“Going into a new situation like this, I’ll rely on the older girls for some leadership and inspiration,” Stephens said. “It’s hard to say, I’m going to rely on the young ones for anything because I don’t really know them yet. You still are going to need to have the older players kind of show the younger players how it’s going to go.”
On top of dealing with a young group of players, Stephens is coming from a class where one outstanding player can dominate to the point of being nearly unstoppable. It’s that challenge that may have been the selling point for the former Frontier coach.
“I’ve been at Frontier for 12 years and it’s gone pretty well,” Stephens said. “As a coach, you’re looking for the next challenge. For me, it’s Class 6A. Can I do that? Will my system work at that level? It’s also a challenge. Coaches are competitive people. I want to be able to go to that level, compete and hopefully be successful. Frontier’s been good, but coaches are always looking for that next challenge and that’s what kind of attracted me to it — just thinking, ‘Let’s go give that a try. Let’s go see if we can do that.’”
Stephens may be venturing to the big city, but he won’t be completely lost when the first whistle blows next season. Assistant coach Kendra League will remain on the staff, helping to bridge the gap between the old regime and new one.
“Coach League, who was the assistant for coach Treat, I believe that she’s going to stay on staff,” Stephens said. “I remember her playing in high school. I coached against her, so I’ve known her for a long time. In this transition process, she’s been very helpful. I talked to her the other day and she’s a resource I’m really going to rely on because she knows these girls and she knows what their tendencies are. Having her is going to be a big plus, I think.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Stephens might not be on the basketball court, but in getting settled in at his new city. Stephens said he will still fulfill his obligations at Frontier’s team camp, while also trying to take part in as many summer workouts as possible in Stillwater.
“This summer is going to be kind of a transition,” Stephens said. “I still have some obligations here at Frontier that I need to take care of, and then I’m going to be at Stillwater as much as possible. I think it’s going to work out for the most part, with me being able to be with the Stillwater girls. There may be one or two times where that might be awkward, but I think it’s going to work out.
“I’m very excited about it. I think it’s a great opportunity. Stillwater has a very good school system. I’m not that involved in the athletics of Stillwater, but I think it’s a great situation. I hope that what I want to do and what I’ve done here at Frontier will transfer and the same things will work.”