Former Lawrence High girls basketball coach Larry Zientara has a funny way of remembering his first year with the program, when the Lions went 24-0 in the 1983-84 season and won the Class 6A state championship.
Lawrence High 1983-84 girls basketball roster
Jenny Clark, sr.
Nikki Wright, jr.
Sonya Coleman, sr.
Jodi Oelschlager, so.
Amy Lienhard, sr.
Kerry Girty, jr.
Betsy Brand, jr.
Mary Kay Waller, jr.
Dorinda Kearns, sr.
Claire Masinton, sr.
Lori Nishikawa, so.
Megan Hiebert, jr.
Coach Larry Zientara
“When you have a perfect season to start your coaching career everything else is downhill,” the now retired coach joked.
Zientara, who went on to coach the Jenks, Okla., girls to a 5A state title in 1991, enjoyed another career peak Wednesday, when his ‘83-84 Lions team was inducted into the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame during a ceremony in Topeka.
“This is a great surprise and a great memory,” said Zientara, now 66.
The year before he coached Claire Masinton, Amy Lienhard, Jodi Oelschlager, Dorinda Kearns, Nikki Wright, Sonya Coleman and the rest of the Lions to a perfect season, LHS went 6-14 and Zientara was an assistant for Lawrence’s boys. That season had gone so poorly for the LHS girls, Zientara wasn’t sure any of the players would want to go out for the team in his debut season. Upon taking over, he decided to seek out the input of returning players when choosing the team’s new uniforms, and Zientara said that tactic seemed to get them interested and feel personally invested.
From there, Masinton and Lienhard, Lawrence’s top two scorers and rebounders, steered the team to an unblemished record with their senior leadership, and the season ended with a 49-48 victory over Derby in the 6A title game at Allen Fieldhouse — the same venue where Danny Manning and the Lawrence boys lost their 6A championship game, 50-49, to Kansas City Wyandotte later that night.
Under their new coach, the Lions pressed all over the floor, and Zientara often stuck to a six- or seven-player rotation. To their credit, the coach added, the players embraced a team-first approach.
Sonya Coleman-Johnson traveled from Geneva, Ill., to join five of her teammates for the hall of fame ceremony. She said they couldn’t have achieved greatness without their coach.
“He just respected us. He recognized our abilities and helped us overcome weaknesses,” Lawrence’s starting senior small forward said. “It was a we-directed team. We win together, we lose together and nobody wanted to lose, especially since we started winning.”
Wright, Lawrence’s starting junior point guard, said the players not only had the physical gifts and close bond to win, but also shared a competitive fire.
“We just hated to lose. We had that mentality of ‘We’re not losing,’” said Wright, who lives in Lawrence. “Practices were hard and intense, and it paid off in the games.”
Coleman-Johnson, Wright, Betsy Brand-Six, Jenny Clark, Megan Hiebert and Kerry Girty-Cuny attended the KBCA ceremony on the campus of Washburn University with Zientara and assistant coach Gary Hammer. Some players, such as Lienhard, who lives in Germany, and Masinton, who lives in Massachusetts, were unable to attend. Still, Brand-Six said the Lions enjoyed reuniting and talking about how the group came together so naturally, even though they might not have had a lot in common off the court.
“It’s always fun to look back and go down memory lane,” Brand-Six said. “Most of us hadn’t seen each other in many, many years — since high school for some of us.”
LHS last won a state championship in 2008, and also finished as 6A’s top team in 1992 under Hammer, eight years after the Lions’ perfect ‘83-84 season. Zientara, who went on to finish 109-38 in seven seasons at LHS and 269-158 in his career, always will remember that special run at LHS in his first head-coaching job.
“It was not only a perfect season,” he said, “but they were just a terrific group of young ladies who bought into what I was preaching.”