That’s all Larry Price really asks for when he arrives at practices and games. And the Elk Grove High School girls basketball coach doesn’t just preach this theme, he lives it. The proof is in the results.
The upstart Thundering Herd, a skilled, scrappy lot, is in a CIF Northern California Regional championship for the first time – in any sport, boys or girls. Seeded 12th, Elk Grove will play regional powerhouse Sacramento on Saturday at 10 a.m. at Sleep Train Arena for the Division II title and a ticket to the state final.
Price, 59, is in his first season at Elk Grove after nine successful campaigns at Florin. A towering figure who doubles as a state parole agent for the California Department of Corrections, Price pours himself into coaching to match the effort of his players. And the sweat. Man, does he sweat. Perspiration trickles off Price’s temples and chin like a slow drip as he works the sideline, works the referees and implores defensive switches.
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And always within reach for the Detroit native in the heat of battle?
“Oh yes, the towel, always the towel!” said Elk Grove senior Madison Wong, the program’s all-time leading scorer. “Coach has been great for us. We give him all we have out there on the floor.”
Said Price, laughing, “I do sweat. It’s my job.”
He added: “This is such a wonderful group of young ladies. They won my heart from the beginning. They make me want to work hard for them because they sure work hard for me. After games, there’s nothing left in their tank.”
Elk Grove is led by Wong, Paiton Demps and Mira Shulman, otherwise known to Price as “The 3-Headed Monster.” They not only lead the team in points and rebounds, they lead by example and presence. But they’re monsters only “when they have their ponytails on and it’s game time,” Price said.
Shulman, a 5-foot-8 junior guard, averages 18.3 points. She has played all five positions in games. Wong, a 5-6 guard, averages 15.2 points, often connecting from long range. Demps, a 5-7 junior wing, averages 12.5 points, scoring inside and out. She is the younger sister of Sacramento State’s four-year starting guard Cody Demps from the men’s basketball program.
Before Wednesday’s practice, Demps insisted that she is the best athlete in the family, then blew her cover by giggling. What she is serious about is how much of an impact Price has been to the Herd, elevating a solid team into a championship contender.
“We love our coach,” Demps said. “He’s got our back, and we’ve got his. He’s exactly what we needed to get better.”
Price said Demps “wants her own identity, to be her own great player in a family of great players.”
The Demps’ dad, Chris, was a defensive lineman for Sac State football from 1984 to 1986.
Elk Grove (23-10) has forged an identity as a dark horse. It didn’t win the Delta League, finishing second to NorCal D-I finalist St. Francis. It didn’t reach the Sac-Joaquin Section D-II final, falling to Vanden in a semifinal 84-64. But Elk Grove has regrouped and responded, winning NorCal games over Acalanes in Lafayette, 59-46, over Pleasant Valley in Chico, 56-45, and the rematch against Vanden in Fairfield, 69-63 in the D-II semifinals.
Shulman addressed the team with frantic expressions at the half against Vanden last week, the season on the brink.
“I told them, ‘This could be our last game, so why not put everything we’ve got out there?’ ” Shulman said. “You have to trick them a little. Guilt trip!”
Price understands the value of athletics and teammates from his Michigan roots. One of eight children raised by his mother, Price said he was drawn to sports as a safe outlet with chaos and danger lurking at every street corner.
“My upbringing in Detroit sticks with me, forever,” Price said. “I didn’t have a father growing up. My extended family was the Boys & Girls Club, the recreation leagues. I had youth coaches who helped me go on the right path, saved me.”
Price said his 94-year-old mother, Norma Lee Price, is still strong and vibrant, still living in Detroit. His grandmothers lived until they were 104 and 110. Price said he uses the same principles as a parole agent as he does a coach: Maximize your potential. By day, he supervises parolees and assists in their effort to get re-acclimated into society.
“We try to get them back into education, get a GED or an (degree) from a community college, give them a foundation to go back into society,” Price said. “Give them a chance.”
Peering over practice, Price added, “Being with this team here, this gets me away from that. It gives me an opportunity to live this life, to help these kids, and I love it.”
Saturday’s title games
CIF Northern California championships involving area schools:
SLEEP TRAIN ARENA
Division II girls: Sacramento vs. Elk Grove, 10 a.m.
Division I girls: St. Francis vs. Castro Valley, 2 p.m.
AMERICAN CANYON HIGH SCHOOL
Division IV boys: West Campus vs. Palma, 4 p.m.
Division III girls: Inderkum vs. Sacred Heart Cathedral, 6 p.m.