GAYLESVILLE - Jay Prater has played for and coached with a basketball legend at Spring Garden. Now, the 21-year-old Prater is hoping some of that experience will carry over with his own program at Gaylesville.
Prater was recently tabbed to coach the Lady Trojans. Like boys basketball coach Gable Lawson, he's still working toward his teaching degree, but both of their futures are now.
"It came a little sooner than I was expecting, but I think being under Coach Rat (Ricky Austin) for two years and playing for him for five, I know what a successful program looks like, and I'm glad I get the opportunity to emulate some of that," Prater said. "I'm just blessed. I'm glad (Gaylesville principal) Mr. (Scott) Hays has gone on a limb and taken a chance hiring someone as young as myself. Marrying into a family from Gaylesville (Prater's fiancee is Hannah Van Pelt), I've gotten to see how great of a community this is. It's the closest thing to what I grew up in as I've seen. I didn't realize that until I moved here."
Prater takes over a girls program that went 6-18 last season. A 2014 Spring Garden graduate, Prater was an assistant on Austin's boys team last season. The Panthers went 16-10 and fell just a game short of the Northeast Regional Tournament.
Prater also assisted Austin in several aspects of the Lady Panthers' run to the Class 1A state runner-up spot last season. They finished with a 25-8 record.
"I want to bring some of that success to Gaylesville," Prater said. "My father-in-law (Jim Van Pelt) played for Coach (Tommy) Lewis back in the late 80s, early 90s. He was very successful. My dad (Randall Prater) has told me before Spring Garden, Gaylesville was the premier girls program in the county. With a school as old as Gaylesville, that has as rich a history as Gaylesville, I think that's a great opportunity to do something special."
Prater said a large part of the credit for being at this point in his career goes to Austin.
"This is a big step after being under Coach Rat's wings the past few years," Prater said. "Bar none, in my opinion, he is the best girls coach in the state of Alabama 1A through 7A, and arguably one of the best if not the best all-around boys and girls coaches. It's like watching a master at his studio. I think his success is a discipline-based success. There's such a stability there, and that's what I'm looking forward to here.
"These girls have not had a whole lot of stability. They've gone through coaches. My fiancee played for Ashley Clowdis and had other coaches through the years. I want to bring a little bit of stability. I want to be somebody who they can expect to be here the next year, no doubts. I want to bring a lot of stuff Coach Rat does, but definitely the discipline part of Spring Garden basketball. Maybe they'll be receptive."
Hays said he's happy things worked out where Jay could come on board with the Gaylesville coaching staff.
"We never did find that one person who could just take the girls and boys programs and just run with them, but then we came down to the end of summer and talked to Jay," Hays said. "He has about a year from finishing up school. He's going to be a certified teacher. He's living in Gaylesville. He's marrying a girl from Gaylesville. He's living here in the community and he's willing to do it.
"I've never heard anything negative about him. He came through Spring Garden's program, so there can't be anything but positives there. I'm excited about him coming on board and taking the girls."
Hays said while both Prater and Lawson will be the head coaches of their respective programs, veteran coach Curt Hendon will still be the Trojans' coach "on paper."
"Since neither of them are actual employees of the school, Coach Hendon will be the guy as our representative," Hays said. "Coach Hendon has his own kids and he likes to be involved in their lives in sports. He just didn't particularly want to be the guy for basketball."
With school starting Aug. 9, Prater hasn't had an opportunity to officially meet with his new team. However, he has watched them scrimmage in a couple of summer play dates and "really like what I saw."
"There's a lot of athleticism, a lot of drive," he said. "You've got some girls who have a lot of competitive fight and athletic ability. I'm going to try and instill some of the more specialized basketball skill that will maybe enable them to be very successful.
"I want our girls to understand some expectations before the season starts. As soon as school starts, I'd like to sit down with them and talk about some things we're going to do day in and day out. Coach Hendon has done a really good job instilling a lot of that. I don't think it will be a whole lot different than what he's done. I'm just looking forward to meeting them and getting to know them."