Fred Priester had accomplished a great deal during his 28 years of coaching varsity girls basketball, but until this year he had never reached the summit of Virginia’s prep basketball pecking order. Even with 14 Concorde District titles and five Northern Region championships under his belt, the Oakton coach had yet to taste glory at the state tournament.
That all changed on March 9, when the Cougars defeated Princess Anne, 59-38, to give Oakton High School its first Virginia AAA girls basketball title. It was a fitting ending for a dominant team that finished the 2011-12 season with a 31-0 record, making it only the third team in state history to reach that win total.
The victory was a long time coming for Priester, who now enters his 19 season at Oakton after coaching McLean for 10 years. But as the Oakton and AAU coach explains, that coronation hardly represented his crowning achievement.
Q: Your team became the first from the Northern Region to win a girls basketball state title since West Springfield did it in 1999. It was also your first in 28 years of coaching. What did that victory mean to you?
A: It meant a lot to me for the kids, and it meant a lot to me for the school. I was just excited for all of that. I’m not going to try to get too humble and say I never think about it, but it really wasn’t the highest thing on my list. People said to me afterward, ‘Well now you can retire.’ I said well yeah, but that would indicate that my only goal was to win a state championship. That’s really so far down my list of goals.
Q: What were the goals you laid out for that team?
A: Our goal every year is to play at or above our potential in every game. If you do that, then I think winning games sort of takes care of itself. If you set a goal of, ‘You have to win this game,’ what do you do if you don’t? Everybody fails. We all fail a million times a week. It’s really about trying to move forward and striving to play your best. People that don’t know me don’t understand what I’m trying to get out of the kids. People that have played for me understand that I’m only trying to get them to play their best.
Q: Where does that team rank among past ones you’ve coached?
A: A lot of factors have to go into it. First of all, a certain amount of luck goes into it. You have to hit your stride at the right time, get a break here and a break there. So if a team wins a state championship, does that mean that they’re automatically better than any of the other teams? No. Every year there’s a confluence of factors and kids and personality traits and circumstances that come together and make that team. When the season is over, I say to the kids there will never, ever in the history of man be another team like this one. You’ll never get this particular confluence of events at one time. When you’ve been a part of something absolutely unique, it’s never going to be repeated. So when you believe that, it becomes difficult to compare teams.
Q: The Coyer twins finished their careers with 110 wins for Oakton. What was it like coaching those two?
A: First and foremost, they’re just really good kids. They’re two of the more savvy athletes that I’ve been around, guys or girls. They’re very coachable. They very easily could have been prima donnas, but they listened and they did what I asked them to do. Caroline was a great floor general. Way more often than not she made the right decision with the ball and came up big in big games when we needed her to. Katherine was probably the best defender I’ve ever seen. She puts the clamps on people.
Q: Another milestone you hit last year was your 500th win, which came from your team’s win in the Northern Region championship. What was that experience like for you?
A: To win your 500th game is very gratifying, and to go with the regional championship, that’s something you’ll remember even more. So it was special. It reminded me how lucky I am to be doing this for this long and to have such good players.
Q: With the Coyer twins and five other seniors graduated, you’ve found yourself working with a very young team this season. Yet you guys continue to thrive, currently sitting at 10-2. What do you like about your team this year?
A: Elizabeth [Manner] has been phenomenal, but the thing is there are other people that are supporting her. We’re playing with a freshman and sophomore at point guard, and they’re growing really, really well. You’re just trying to get better because you want to be ready for the tournament season.
Q: Your program has established itself as one of the area’s best year-in and year-out. What the secret to maintaining such a high level of consistency?
A: We have a great tradition. When we get kids to come to our camps, we figure out who it is at each grade level that can play and encourage them and try to get them to come to our games and sit behind our bench. Our current players or whatever generation they’re in, they take great pride in talking to those kids and helping them and working hard with them in camp. So we have like a small town atmosphere almost. It’s similar to where I grew up in Indiana, where everybody in the Oakton community who has a girls basketball player is thinking, ‘We’ve got to get ready to get to Oakton and be part of that program.’ And the other thing is we have a really good coaching staff at the JV and freshmen levels that work their tails off.