Times have been lean for the Lincoln High girls basketball program the past 15 years or so.
In the 13 seasons between the Links' two most-recent state tournament appearances, Lincoln High totaled 51 wins — a shade less than four wins per season.
Looking back, Nyagoa Gony remembers how even during her freshman year she started to see that culture change. But did she think it possible to return the program to its more competitive era of the 1980s and ’90s?
“I was a very optimistic freshman, like super-optimistic," said Gony, a senior and one of three team captains. "So, yeah, I thought it was possible.”
Fast-forward nearly four years. Lincoln High took a big step in that quest for respect with the Class A-5 district title, returning to the state tournament for the first time since 2004.
Next, the Links will try to clear another hurdle by getting their first state tournament victory since 2000 when they face No. 2 Millard South at 2 p.m. Thursday at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the opening Class A game.
“I mean, people might doubt us, but we’re going in strong," Gony said. "We’re not coming in to lose; we’re coming to play, we’re coming to win.”
“Exactly,” fellow senior Maya Thomas said.
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The Links (16-9) have posted the most wins in a season since the 2000 team went 19-3 and lost in the state semifinals.
Lincoln High athletic director Pat Gatzmeyer, who came to the school 12 years ago, said as you go through the process, you don't really reflect on the wins and losses.
But he did remember, distinctly, a 97-18 loss to Lincoln Southeast in the HAC Tournament during the 2008-09 season.
“It was a big challenge for girls, and a big risk, to go out there and put yourself out there in a predicament where you knew you might not be successful," Gatzmeyer said. "But those girls kind of helped stay the course of it, too, over time.”
Thomas, for one, took a bit of a risk even this season. She's another of the Links' captains (junior Natayah Wilson is the third) and transferred from Lincoln Southeast for her senior year. Thomas had the idea that there was some talent at Lincoln High. But it was more than that.
“I just wanted to be part of a team that seems like they’re pretty tight-knit and get along with each other,” Thomas said.
Gony's freshman year, the varsity team won three games. The next year, that number rose to five. Last year, the Links took another step forward with 10 wins before losing in the opening round of districts.
That led to not only expectations, but belief, coming into this season.
"We always knew we were capable, but it was just trying to get all the right pieces together to make it possible," Gony said.
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Life often has a way of putting adversity directly in your path.
Lincoln High started this season slowly, going 2-2 over the first two weeks. Then a lot of things happened.
There were injuries and illness, and the team was suiting up six healthy players at one point in December. Then the team's head coach at the time, Marcus Perry, was arrested Dec. 14 on suspicion of first-degree sexual assault of a student. Prosecutors filed two felony sexual assault charges against Perry on Dec. 18 and he later pleaded not guilty to both in January. His trial is pending.
Perry was in his second year as head coach, and the alleged assault didn't involve anyone on the team. But it created a different coaching dynamic.
Richard Jackson, who was a volunteer varsity assistant coach last season, took over head coaching duties. The Links were familiar with him, but he offered new leadership and a different way of doing things.
"It was right in the middle of our season, almost," Jackson said. "So they had to learn a new philosophy and what I wanted them to do."
That philosophy — tough, no-nonsense, move at full speed — was on display Tuesday at Earl Johnson Gym. The team broke the opening huddle with a "One, two, three: work." Mid-practice it shifted to "Hard work." And a later break was "Work. Work. Work."
At one point while the Links were running half-court sets, Jackson implored them: "Let's not get complacent here." Two sets later? "That's not going hard. That's going through the motions."
The result? Three down-and-backs.
“He’s tough,” Thomas said.
“He’s the toughest coach," Gony added, "but he’s the greatest coach.”
The turning point in the season came when Lincoln High hosted Lincoln Northeast the day after Perry's arrest. The Links won. It was a needed boost for the student body, and the team, Jackson said.
“I think that win right there catapulted their season," Jackson said. "Because they could’ve just said (forget it), but they didn’t, they didn’t. But we continued to work, we continued to work after that happened. We just haven’t looked back.”
That started an 8-2 stretch, with wins against Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln Pius X, both teams in the Class A tournament field.
Gony and Thomas both talked about how Jackson stresses mental toughness every day in practice and the way to handle the adversity is to face it head-on and move on to the next thing.
Before volunteering with the girls varsity team, Jackson was the boys reserve coach for a number of years. He started coaching at Lincoln High under former boys coach Russ Uhing. Jackson even won a state title with Ewing and the Links boys team in 2003.
For Jackson, it's about teaching the game. At one point Tuesday, he demonstrated an offensive set to Links sophomore wing Nyayongah Gony.
“I just teach," Jackson said. "I just try to teach them the game and how to play it, and how to play it hard. Because with these big girls, they’re still growing and still learning. So you’re teaching all the time."
Some of his former pupils on the boys side will share stories with the girls players about Jackson and his insistence on doing drills over and over until they're done right.
“They also said … you may not know it when you’re playing with him right then, but you’ll definitely look back and be, like, ‘Coach Jackson was great,'” Thomas said.
Gatzmeyer thinks the Links appreciate the passion Jackson brings.
"I think they realize that how much he’s out there just to help them, just to watch them get better and how much he enjoys that part of it," Gatzmeyer said.
Jackson thinks he's gained the trust of the players because of his efforts to instill in them trust in each other: Everybody does her job and does it to the best of her ability.
Even with changing some roles, the team has bought in. But there have been bumps in the road.
“I demand a lot from them," Jackson said. "So they had to get used to that. I would always tell them, ‘Guys, if you take a day off, that means I’m going to be double-tough. You know, because I don’t take days off.
"'Every time I come to practice I expect you guys to be better. I expect you to do the things I’ve asked you to do all the time' and they had to get used to that.”