Blue Valley North won its only state basketball championship when it was a 5A school in 1997, but Ryan Phifer is crafting a winning track record as head coach that would suggest more hardware might be added to the state title trophy case. Last season, the Mustangs won 21 games, the most in the school’s history, losing to current University of Kansas player Perry Ellis and Wichita Heights in the state semi-finals before beating Topeka in the third-place game.
It’s been a gradual climb in the yearly win column for Phifer, who played two years of college ball at the University of Nebraska after transferring from Mid-Plains Community College in his hometown of North Platte, Neb. Playing guard for the occasional minutes and spelling Tyronn Lue, who had an 11-year NBA career and is an assistant coach for the Boston Celtics, Phifer was on the last Husker team to make an NCAA Tournament in 1998.
For seven years, Phifer was also an assistant to Jeff Smith and coached the junior varsity squad at Lincoln Southeast High School in Nebraska’s capital city. The math teacher and hoops honcho talks about 10 topics, including this year’s Mustangs, playing for Big Red and bowling for motivational fun.
1. Successful seasons beget expectations.
“It’s a little different for our players, because my first few years we were always trying to get to that level. We were trying to knock off those teams, and we wanted to get to that high level. And now, over the last three years, we’ve kind of become that team. We got third place last year, third place a couple years ago, and so it’s a different mindset for our players to be in. But I think they’ve approached it in a positive manner. They’re not taking any days off. They’re not just thinking they’re going to show up and win the game. We also know that we’re going to get the opponent’s best shot, because we’re pretty highly ranked and pretty highly thought of, and one of the state contenders. So I think that breeds a lot of expectations, but our guys like having that target on their back and they know they have to come to work every day to make sure that we don’t take a slide down. We’ve just got to keep improving every day.”
2. The Mustangs lost their annual season opener to Olathe East, 51-48.
“I really found out that we are a resilient group. We played, on a scale of 1 to 10, at a 6. We really didn’t play very well at all. We had guys who played probably their worst individual games I’ve seen them play, ever. And we still had a lead with a minute, 45 seconds to go. That’s a pretty positive sign, and that’s a good team we played at a very tough place to play.”
3. The intangibles are the key ingredients.
“The chemistry is great. When we’ve been successful, the players have improved, but also the chemistry amongst the kids has improved. These players here — Scott Edwards, Brian Dolan, Michael Dolan, Cory Taubin, Matt Peterson, Danny Weston — those guys have played together since they’ve been in fifth or sixth grade. A few of the guys all played on the Spurs, this AAU team that Danny Weston’s dad formed. They have been playing so much together that they know where each other is on the floor, they know their strengths and their weaknesses, how to get their teammates going. They’re all great friends. Sometimes in practice, we’ve got to get away from being good friends and we’ve got to be competitors and push each other to get better. But it’s that chemistry where they don’t care who gets the last shot, they don’t care who gets 20 points, they just want to get wins. They’ll do whatever it takes to get there.”
4. Matt Peterson is impressing his coaching staff at point guard.
“Matt played varsity as a freshman a little bit, and then he took two years off. He decided he wanted to focus on soccer, and now he’s burned out on soccer. And this summer he said he’d like to play basketball. He came and played all summer. He’s a great athlete, he’s a great competitor and he’s an extremely good basketball player, but he’s had two and a half years off of basketball. He played tremendous in the Olathe East game. He was very good friends with Tyler [Rathbun, who died in an ATV accident Nov. 25] from Shawnee Mission East. They were soccer teammates on their club. He goes to the funeral that day, he’s playing with a heavy heart, and for his first game in two and a half years, the kid goes out and plays tremendous.”
5. The grind of January and February can affect the team, which set a school record for victories.
“We won a game on a Friday night against Blue Valley, but we just didn’t play well. It looked like guys were starting to go towards wanting to shoot a little bit more and worrying about stats. We showed up on Saturday and just had them pick teams, they didn’t know what they were doing, and we just went to the bowling alley and hung out and had some fun. After that, the guys had this weight lifted off their shoulders. They got energized. That was the most important thing we did all year. We didn’t win every game after that, but we started to play better as a team.”
6. Adapting to Phifer’s brand of basketball wasn’t immediate.
“My first few years were rough. We won six games each my first two years, but then we slowly started to progress. When I was at Lincoln Southeast, we were extremely successful. We were at the state tournament every year. We were runner-up several years, and we had three Players of the Year in the time I was there as an assistant. I was kind of spoiled by that success to where I didn’t expect it right away here, but I didn’t necessarily know how good some of these teams were here. I was used to a system of play from Nebraska that we used and incorporated it here, but it didn’t quite mesh with the players here. They were used to a certain style of basketball, and then I came in and tried to teach them a different style. Getting all of our guys to buy in to that system took some time.”
7. Relating to kids at every tier of playing time is a valuable portion of his coaching.
“One thing that has helped me is I’ve been a player who plays every single minute of a game in high school, to being a pretty decent college player in junior college, to sitting on the bench and being a role player at Nebraska. When I talk to players, I’m able to know what they’re feeling. I’ve been there. My job at Nebraska was to be a practice player, and I was a backup to Tyronn Lue, who was going to play every minute of the game unless we really needed someone to come in. My time was limited on the court, I played a little bit here and there, but that has allowed me to talk to our players who are maybe the ninth, 10th, 11th guys on the bench to say, ‘I know what you feel like.’”
8. As a player, Phifer loved being on the opposing bench in one of college basketball’s most hallowed arenas.
“One of my favorite moments of playing at Nebraska was when we played at Allen Fieldhouse and took them to overtime. [Kansas would eventually win, 82-77.] Our whole goal was we don’t want to hear the Rock Chalk chant at the end of the game. Tyronn, I think, had 30 points. Tyronn was one of the best players on the floor, and we had our chances to win that game. They never got to the point to sing Rock Chalk at the end of the game, because it was just that close.”
9. Phifer’s principles on detailed scouting reports and game film are derived from what he learned at Nebraska playing for the Huskers’ all-time winningest coach, Danny Nee.
“He was a tremendous guy to talk to, because he has that Brooklyn accent and would talk to you about everything. I played for a coach in junior college who was kind of a Bobby Knight-disciplined guy. I heard so many bad words that I didn’t know existed. It really turned me off from the game of basketball, and I almost wanted to stop playing because of how he was treating players. But when I got to Nebraska, it seemed like the way he coached and the way he was around guys was good for me to get back into feeling better about basketball.”
10. For him and his wife, Michelle, a teacher at Oak Hill Elementary, coaching at North is the best job.
“There was nothing around Lincoln that was opening, one job in Omaha I looked into, and then we found this online. It was closing two days later, so I sent my stuff in right away. We knew about the Blue Valley district reputation, and I thought, ‘It would be great if I could get an interview. I think I’m qualified. I know I’m ready to be a head coach. But are they going to look at a guy from Nebraska? You’re going to have great resources here, there’s great parent support in this community.’ When I got the call, there was really not a big discussion with my wife. It wasn’t easy, because we moved in the beginning of August. Two weeks before that, we had our first child [a daughter, Ayden, now 6. Their son, Jace, is 3]. So all those main stresses you have in your life came right there.
“People always (ask), ‘Are you thinking about going back to Nebraska?’ I couldn’t see myself anywhere else but here.”