BY BROCK LAUE (This article appeared in the February issue of Colorado Preps Magazine)
In basketball, a cohesive group can win a lot of games. What happens when two separate teams are merged into one though? Pawnee and Prairie know all about it as they formed a new co-op program for the boys.
“Obviously I was the head coach at Grover, and if we hadn’t combined with Prairie this year, we only would’ve had about five or six kids,” Danielle Zehnder said. “That was a difficult decision to begin with, whether or not to keep our team or to co-op with another team.”
The merge happened and many student-athletes who had played on the Prairie football team together now joined forces in basketball, allowing for a bit smoother transition period. Zehnder and Amber Whitlock teamed up as a coaching staff as well.
“Her basketball mind is a lot like mine, so we work really well together,” Whitlock said.
Before the season got underway, Whitlock told the former Pawnee coach that although her title was that of assistant coach, the two should work together in more of a co-head coaching style.
“I wanted her input and I wanted everything that she was thinking,” Whitlock said. “The bond I’ve got with her, it’s been pretty cool. We like that uptempo, press, and fast break style.”
The cohesion has led to a number of wins (17-7 record) for the program. The most notable victory was a 64-61 triumph at Peetz, which paved the way for a co-championship between the two schools in the 1A North Central. The Mustangs and Bulldogs finished with identical 7-1 conference records, but Peetz won the first contest 62-59 in December. That win boosted the Mustangs into the post-season where they’ve earned their first state tournament appearance since 2015. They will challenge top ranked and unbeaten DeBeque in the state quarterfinals on Thursday.
“We’ve got a solid eight to 10 players,” Zehnder said. “Each player on the team has brought something different and I think that’s a factor. We’ve got shooters, we’ve got great inside post players and everyone on that end has come together.”
Devin Littlefield has been a scoring threat while averaging 16.9 points per game. The senior tallied a season-high 26 points in two contests, which included the monumental win over Peetz.
“This year we’ve got a ton of outside shooters, and then with Jade Cass coming back at the beginning of January it opened up our inside game quite a bit with him and Wyatt Schnug,” Whitlock said.
Both coaches had lofty expectations for the team, knowing the talent they would feature. 6-foot-4 Jade Cass has accounted for 10.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists each night. The senior presence switched from Pawnee to Prairie colors, as did guard Logan Cacciola (8.7 ppg). Trey Moore (5.8 ppg) has been a key player in a supporting role.
Although the program has had some recent lofty success, they claimed the district championship in 2015 and had 16 victories during Whitlock’s first season, the Mustangs have also been on the losing end more often than not the past three campaigns. They won four games for two straight seasons before trending upwards again with a 7-3 conference record (8-12 overall) last season. With the combination of players from both schools giving Prairie a lift, the Mustangs earned a league title for the first time in over 20 years.
Several other storylines could be written about this unique group. In boys basketball, the coaching profession has mostly been dominated by males. That is beginning to change, even if it is gradual change. Becky Hammon, the former All-American for Colorado State University, is an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs.
Amber Whitlock and Danielle Zehnder have broken rather new ground at the prep level.
“As a male, you don’t normally see female coaches in basketball,” Zehnder noted. “That’s really something the boys have become accustomed to. With both coaches, the boys are really respectful. They understand our background and how much we have loved basketball. Amber and I both played since we were little, then through high school, and both of us in college.”
Whitlock, a 1A state champion in 2001 as a Prairie player, suited up for Northeastern Junior College and eventually the University of Nebraska Kearney. Zehnder, a Platte Valley graduate, competed for Western Colorado University. They each have years of experience as both players and coaches. On top of that, Whitlock has deep ties to the area.
“That’s where mom graduated, my brother graduated, grandma drove the bus, and grandpa was on the school board,” she said. “It’s been pretty cool to come back to Prairie and be a part of the program, the community and these kids’ lives. To do it at my alma mater, it makes it a little more special probably than at other schools.”