Price ready to get started at STM
CHAMPAIGN — On Day 1 of his new job, not all of the text messages Jay Price received were congratulatory in nature.
“First time,” he said, “I’ve had sixth-graders mad at me.”
In accepting the job as St. Thomas more’s girls’ basketball head coach on Wednesday, Price acknowledged he will relinquish the coaching duties he had last year working with the sixth-grade girls’ basketball team at St. Matthew.
“It was hard telling my daughter this morning,” said Price, who had 10 years as a collegiate assistant with the men’s program at Purdue under Gene Keady and nine additional years at the University of Illinois with Bruce Weber. “She wasn’t very happy.”
He takes over a St. Thomas More program which has reached back-to-back state championship games under former coach Chris Mennig and won the Class 2A state title on March 1. Next year, the northside Champaign school will be reclassified into Class 3A.
Before he accepted the STM offer, Price had to do some checking. He wasn’t researching the capabilities of the returning players (which includes the top three scorers from the most-recent 33-2 team).
“No. 1, I needed the blessing from my bosses at the (UI) College of Business,” Price said. “Once they gave it, and my wife gave hers, it was a simple decision.”
For most of the past year, Price has worked as the associate Director of Development for the College of Business.
The time spent at Big Ten universities has him well-prepared for his upcoming dual roles.
“Coaching college basketball is basically two jobs anyway because of the hours you put in,” Price said. “I think that will help me.”
He plans to meet with as many returning players as possible today, the next-to-last day of school for St. Thomas More underclassmen. Price said there’s no need to overhaul the program.
“Coach (Chris) Mennig built the program the right way, from the ground up,” Price said. “They know how to play hard and how to compete.
“He did a fantastic job. I want to continue the tradition. I’m not going to reinvent the wheel.”
The Sabers return their top three scorers, two of whom are All-Area first-team selections: rising junior Tori McCoy and rising senior Lexi Wallen. Upcoming senior Liz Bristow was an All-Area second-teamer.
McCoy averaged a team-high 18.3 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. Wallen, a three-sport All-Area first-teamer, was the No. 2 scorer (15.4 average) and led in three-pointers with 29. Bristow averaged 11.7 points per game and led the team in getting to the free throw line (184 attempts).
"Us girls are hungry and ready to build on the successes we have achieved in these past few years and I'm certain that under the guidance of Coach Price, we will be able to do so," Wallen said. "We are all looking forward to the upcoming season and the challenges it will bring."
Price can’t wait to get started.
“We get 25 days (from the IHSA to work with athletes) in the summer and we’ll use them,” Price said, “so I can learn where their skills are at.”
Price said he has made no decisions about the coaching staff, but has been in contact “with at least one person with college coaching experience.” As for assistants who’ve worked with the current STM players in the past, he said, “I will talk with anyone and make a decision from there. We will give them an opportunity (to interview).”
As for his emphasis, Price said, “I’m not a big rules guy. Play hard. Represent the school. Come everyday and show a great will to win. I do push people.”
Until working with the sixth-grade girls’ team last winter at St. Matthew, Price’s entire coaching career had been devoted to working with young men. He doesn’t anticipate a major transition.
“Coaching is coaching, no matter what,” he said. “Your goal is to make sure they get better.”
Winning wasn’t the priority at St. Matthew.
“It was an equal-play deal,” Price said. “Everyone played the same every single game. It was a good experience for me, an experience I’d never trade for anything.”
St. Thomas More principal Ryan Bustle announced the hiring Wednesday by email. When reached by phone he said he had applications from “four or five” persons and spoke to “two or three of them.”
He believes Price will be the right fit.
“Our biggest quality that we were looking for with the amount of girls we have had and will continue to have is someone who could pick up without missing a beat and know how to handle things,” Bustle said. “Coming off a state championship, everybody has their eyes on you and wants to beat you.
“The most important thing is having somebody who understands it’s an important part of STM, but not the only part of our STM community. He is pumped to get started and we’re excited to have him.”
Bustle said he and athletic director Dan Hennessey had the most input on the selection and that, “we did not consult the students.”
Price said that several years ago, coaching high school girls is not a career path he would have predicted for himself.
“Four or five years ago, I was looking to be a head coach at a Division I school,” he said. “As you grow older, your priorities change and being in a place where you love to live is very important.
“When you can combine living in a place you love with a job you love, it’s like winning the lottery. It will be a challenge, but I relish the challenge. It’s a great day for us.”
Price, an Oklahoma City native — who earned his bachelor’s degree from Kansas — previously had offers to continue coaching collegiately, but stayed in the community.
Tori McCoy’s father, Tim, responded to the hiring in an email.
“First thing first, we (daughters Tori and Madison) are not leaving The High School Saint Thomas More,” he wrote. “I do reiterate on some comments I have made in the past about being heartbroken to see coach Mennig leave the program. But we did not choose STM because of the coach, we chose STM before even knowing coach Mennig, and we chose STM because we felt the school would have better success at developing them for their college years and even further into the future.
“If the administration felt that it was in the best interest of the girls program and STM to relieve Chris of his position and have the torch passed, then we as a family stand behind their decisions; because it really is not about coach Mennig, it is more so all about The High School of Saint Thomas More in general. I understand that with the new coach Jay Price, we are getting an experienced coach who is very knowledgeable about the game. I am sure that he will be exceptional in continuing the legacy that coach Mennig and the family of STM built.
“We will welcome him with open arms, and I am sure that the rapport established between Mennig and STM family can be established with Coach Price and all of us. I think that coach Price will come in with a great attitude and will be excited about where he believes he can take this program and also be excited about working within the STM family organization.”