Niagara Gazette — As the applause faded and tears dried in the wake of Jenepher Banker’s farewell as Grand Island High School girls basketball coach Saturday afternoon, one adjective infused every tribute.
“She was always prepared,” said Todd Julien, whose Pittsford Mendon team had advanced to the state’s Final Four with the aid of a crucial call as the clock struck “0:18.7.”
“The most prepared coach I ever saw,” said GI Athletic Director Jon Roth, whom she blessed with one additional year.
“She made me prepare and believe in myself,” said senior Cassie Oursler, bound for Robert Morris University, six years after Coach Banker had seen her in the school library and told her, “You’ve got to play basketball.”
Her Grand Island teams won 246 of 345 games, including a 152-62 record in the Niagara Frontier League, and seven sectional titles, five consecutively. But for this finality, not even she was quite prepared. “I can’t think about that now,” she said. “This one just hurts too much.”
The 2013 Lady Vikings’ equivalent of “wide right” or “no goal” was an endline in-bounds attempt with :18.7 left in a 37-37 game. After two time-outs, the scrum for positions prompted a rare “illegal pick” call, the ball going over to the other Vikings, who scored with three seconds remaining.
In December, few foresaw Grand Island 18 ticks away from the Final Four. GI struggled with ball control, incurring several double-digit losses. But once the team squeezed past Williamsville South, the course was set for Buffalo State's Houston Gym with three relatively easy victories.
Roth knew he had the right coach 15 years ago when she said, not yet. She needed to prepare. She studied the unproductive Island program for a year and came back with a plan for gymnasium programs in the lower grades and a staff of volunteer assistants. “She insisted,” he puts it.
Her first team, 1998, went just 3-11, but did have a D-1 scholarship winner in Jill Conover (soccer, mostly, Bowling Green).
“She commanded total respect from everybody,” Roth recalled, and by 2004 was producing Class A champions. Of the five Lady Vikings to score 1,000 points, four – Ashley Freiday, Courtney Donavan, Oursler and Kallie Banker – played for Banker. A fifth, Julie Roth Neville, served as her JV coach for eight years.
Four-time Player of the Year Kallie Banker’s 2012 exit interview says it all about Jenepher Banker. With absolutely no prompting, she said that what she would miss about high school was “playing for my mom,” rare devotion at an age when almost any young woman is ready to fly solo.
Jenepher Banker had planned to “graduate” along with Kallie to track her full-scholarship progress personally at the University of Rhode Island. “We were set to try to adjust many of our weekend games to accommodate this,” Roth said, “And then Jen said, ‘Look, I’m not going to leave you hanging, I’ll stay another year if you like.’”
It all became moot when Kallie suffered a pre-season injury, earning a redshirt season. Banker saw the bright side. “She’ll get five years of a good education now.”
(Son Kolby, is a three-year soccer starter at St. Bonaventure, a sports management major.)
She played in two basketball hotbeds, Mercer High between Erie and Pittsburgh and then Springfield, Mass., birthplace of the game, where her team reached the Division II Elite Eight. Almost immediately came a year coaching at a small high school in Vermont, then, in 1988, five years at Penn State-Behrend in Erie.
Behrend basically played in an equipment room when she arrived and under her guidance won 67 games and, in 1992, the ECAC Regional title.
Meanwhile, she worked with such rival coaches as Pioneer’s Bill Connelly and Pitt Mendon’s Julien, developing such camaraderie that when their teams would meet with much on the line, it had the feel of the jousting at a family picnic.
“She was not only great for the school, she was great for the game,” said Julien.
“We have been blessed with a college-level coach for 15 years,” said Roth.
Whatever the future holds for Lady Vikings, they’d better hope to stay prepared.