With all the changes in the Nashville-area basketball coaches’ circle over the past quarter of a century, you can find one constant — Doug Bontrager on the sidelines at Father Ryan.
The boss of the Irish boys basketball team since 1985 took the job when he was 22. Now 47, Bontrager is a month into his 25th season.
He always has fielded hard-working, competitive teams that are hard to beat with their aggressive man- to-man defense and intense style. He has coached at both the old Ryan campus on Elliston Place, as well at the new location on Norwood Drive, just off Franklin Road.
Bontrager is dean of Nashville head coaches at one school. Jim Nollner has coached longer, but he was at Whites Creek before taking the Antioch job four years ago.
Fresh off winning the Ryan Christmas tournament last Thursday, Bontrager’s team (10-2) opens DII Middle/East Region play Tuesday night at old rival and defending state champ MBA. The Irish carry a six-game winning streak into that contest.
Just after the tournament championship game, Bontrager, a former Ryan player, took the time to start the New Year to reflect on some of his memories over the past 25 years.
“I’ve always loved coaching at Ryan,” he said. “I walk in every day looking forward to the next practice, the next game.
“I want my teams to play good defense, play hard, give their best every game.”
Asked about the best players he’s coached he said, “We’ve had many good ones, and Billy May (Mr. Basketball, state tournament MVP on the 2002 state championship) may have been the best. He was tournament MVP on that team that went 30-2. Brendan Connolly (6-8 center now at Princeton who was on the state runner-up team in 2009) and Enoch Bunch were very good players.”
Asked about scoring machine Sydney Grider of the early 1980s, he said, “Unfortunately, he finished up just a little bit before I got there.”
Bontrager has also coached his two sons Patrick and Michael over the years.
“That was special,” he said.
Bontrager has taken seven teams to the state tournament (one in DI in 1995, the next six in DII). Two won the crown (1999 and 2002) and three notched runner-up finishes (1998, 2001 and 2009).
“The 2002 team may have been the best,” he said. “Although, hard to believe, we didn’t win the Ryan tournament that season. Oakland beat us in the finals.”
This year the Irish won their Christmas tournament for the first time since 2004. It was their third championship overall. They also won in 1999.
Senior Patrick Pinckney, who was named tournament MVP, said Bontrager’s style requires a period of adjustment by his players.
“It started out tough,” the 6-foot-2 Pinckney, who was the Irish’s leading scorer in all three tournament games (16, 13 and 12 points, respectively). “He yells a lot and is very intense. But I got through it, he stuck with me, and things have worked out very well.
“It gets down to the fact he really cares for you and wants you to be the best player you can be. He treats everyone the same. He really pushes you. And, as a senior, I think things have worked out for the best.”
Asked if this was the best Ryan team he’s been on, Pinckney said, “We had [Connolly] as leader in the middle for us two years ago [when Ryan got to the state finals]. This year, we are all doing it collectively.”
MBA and Ensworth, the two state finalists last year, appear to be at the top of the DII heap this season. But don’t rule out Bontrager’s Irish.
“This year’s team has surprised me a little bit with how well we’ve played,” he said. “We’ve got seven seniors who work hard. We’re improved but we’ve got a ways to go.”
Asked how much longer he would coach at Ryan, Bontrager said, “I’d like to continue as long as I enjoy coaching and remain in good health.’’
• Name game: The fact that Ryan forward Andre Agassi shares his name with a retired tennis great is not often overlooked.
“He gets a lot of kidding about that,” Pinckney said.
Also on the team is reserve forward Jamonte Graham, younger brother of former Whites Creek High and current Vanderbilt football player Jamie Graham, who attends many of the Irish games.
• Feeling better: The knee injury David Lipscomb guard Emily Easter sustained last Wednesday in the Overton tournament was not as bad as first feared. It was diagnosed as a deep bruise.
“She may be ready as soon as Tuesday against East Lit,” coach Ernie Smith said. “If not, we’re almost certain she can play Friday against CPA.”
• Looking good: Just off winning its own Christmas Tournament for the third straight year, Overton’s boys basketball team jumps into a key district showdown Tuesday at McGavock.
The Bobcats (10-4), who beat Franklin for the first time since 1996 recently, may be the best team in Nashville.
• Worth a look: Senior guard Arkalus Thomas is the leading scorer for Pearl-Cohn, which has improved recently after a slow start.
“He’s someone who really enjoys playing the game,” first-year coach Raymond Pratcher said. “We’re hoping he can latch on to a DI scholarship somewhere.”
• Two tough tests: CPA hosts David Lipscomb Friday in a big district showdown for both boys and girls. The girls’ game is for first place. The CPA boys won their three games in the Beech Christmas tourney by a total of 79 points. Lipscomb lost its final two games in the Overton tournament to Spring Hill and BGA.
• On the mats: In wrestling, Father Ryan holds its annual Irish Invitational this Friday and Saturday.
It appears top-ranked Baylor and McCallie are the teams to beat in DII. In matches over the weekend, Baylor defeated MBA and Ryan, and McCallie beat the two Nashville teams, as well.