EDMOND — Dandy Peeler admits her tenure at Edmond Memorial got off to a slightly rocky start.
Popular coach Shane Coffey left the program after an 11-year tenure to take an assistant position at the University of Tulsa, and the Bulldogs players — star senior Alie Decker in particular — were very close to Coffey.
“I thought it was going to be tough for us to gain a relationship,” Peeler said.
But as things got more comfortable between Peeler and her players, the team's on-court performance improved, leading to Edmond Memorial's Class 6A runner-up finish. It was the first time the Bulldogs had appeared in a state championship game since 1922.
Peeler, after coaching in the first state tournament of her career, is The Oklahoman's Big All-City Coach of the Year because of the dramatic improvement her team made throughout the season, and particularly in the playoffs.
The Bulldogs' first playoff game was a particularly emotional one for Peeler. Edmond Memorial hosted Choctaw, where Peeler coached three seasons before taking the Memorial job.
Choctaw took a stunning 18-point lead in the first quarter against their former coach.
“We just weren't focused,” Peeler said. “I just got the vibe our girls were really relaxed before that game. ... I never lost confidence that we could come back; we just had to get ourselves together.”
The lesson learned from that game? Mental preparation is a must. The Bulldogs' next game was an area final against No. 2 Midwest City, which had beaten Memorial twice earlier in the season.
Edmond Memorial upset the Bombers 51-45 to earn its state tournament berth.
Peeler's team took a nine-game winning streak into the state championship game against rival Edmond Santa Fe, which beat Memorial by 26 and 15 points, respectively, in earlier contests.
Edmond Santa Fe had a much tougher time with its rival in the title game, winning a nail-biting 44-41 classic.
“I consider our team as the most improved team by far,” Peeler said. “They are really fundamentally sound; they shoot the ball really well.
“I think defense was our biggest change. We were really able to pick up our intensity level on defense, and I think that carried us.”
But another key to the Bulldogs' impressive run was the strong relationship Peeler built with her star.
“She got us to work hard and got us to play together,” Decker said.
“(Changing coaches) helped me grow in many areas in my life that I wouldn't have if it didn't happen.”
Particularly, the ability to adapt to new coaches and new people, she said, which she'll have to do as she moves on to her college career at Wichita State.
“I appreciate my seniors,” Peeler said. “It could've been different, but their maturity level carried us. That's where we were successful.”