The 2021 season was a tough one to join a team as a new head coach. But Lyndon Dunning found a way to make it work.
Dunning led the Graves County girls basketball team to a district championship, region region semifinal appearance and a 19-4 record in his first year at the helm of the Lady Eagles. All that success amidst such difficult circumstances garnered the attention of the region’s coaches and select media members, who voted Dunning the 2021 All-Purchase girls basketball Coach of the Year.
“Being a first-year head coach, it really means a lot. It shows that your peers think a lot of the work that you did,” Dunning told The Sun of earning this recognition. “But a lot of it goes to the kids. I’ve got players that have listened and done what they were supposed to do, and the success we had as a group is what allowed me to get this opportunity.”
He also thanked his family members and school personnel for their support.
“I want to thank my wife and my son — they were really supportive during the season — and I also want to thank the Graves County School System for giving me this opportunity,” he said.
Dunning is the second straight Graves County girls basketball coach to earn this honor, as Brandon Fisher got the nod last season. The Lady Eagles went 26-6 and were First Region runners-up last year, handing Dunning a difficult act to follow. Add in the circumstances and protocols surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, and Dunning had his work cut out for him.
“Usually when a head coach gets a job, they have a big meeting with the players and staff and players’ parents all together. But I had to go individually and drive to each kid’s house and meet them that way. And then we brought them in, in the summer and started working out. We had to do small groups with masks,” he said.
“Eventually the groups were able to be a little bit bigger, and the kids were able to do some things to get themselves ready for the upcoming season. Then we started the school year, and we had to fight through all the restrictions and COVID protocols to get ourselves ready for the season.”
Then came even more adversity.
“We got ready to get things going and we got shut down with a couple of different quarantines. Then I got COVID, so I was out of action for a while before we even started,” Dunning said. “We had a lot of hills and valleys to go through and had a lot of hurdles to battle, and the girls were able to figure those things out, and we were able to work through it in practice with a lot of hard work.”
Dunning’s dedication to his new job and working through all the hurdles wasn’t lost on his players.
“He had to face a lot of adversity with all the COVID restrictions and having to come in and take over. I think he did a really great job,” Graves County junior Ellie Carter told The Sun. “We lost a lot of people from last year, and he stayed very positive and was very confident in what we were capable of. And he really made sure that we were ready for all of our games. He gave us the confidence we needed to be as good as we were this year. We had a lot of success, and we proved a lot of people wrong. And he had a really big part in that.”
Carter added that Dunning’s positivity was what stood out most to her.
“His positivity really goes a long way. Even if you do mess up, he’ll always give you a second chance to make it better,” she said. “He is always positive and is great at giving us information about the games we were going into.”
Dunning gives just as much credit for the Lady Eagles’ success this season to his players.
“This program has always been based on these kids. They work so hard,” he said. “There aren’t many kids I know with the level of commitment that these girls have.”
He also appreciated how welcoming the girls were to a new coach.
“I was really excited about the opportunity that I was given, and I was excited about the challenge ahead, and the girls made it so fun,” he said. “They were really receptive to change, and we tried to do a lot of different things. They really worked together with me and our coaches.”
All the while, Dunning worked to put his own stamp on the Graves County girls basketball program by incorporating the teams at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
“I’ve tried to reach out to the elementary and middle school level and try to make sure I’m being seen. We do a lot of workouts with the young girls in the middle school and some of the elementary kids,” he said.
“I’m trying to make this program into a bottom-up program, where everyone works together. A lot of times, it’s almost like the high school program is an entity unto itself. We’re trying to make sure that doesn’t happen here. We’re trying to make sure the high school is connected to the middle school and even to the elementary level.”
Looking ahead, Dunning said the future appears bright for his Lady Eagles, which is a sentiment shared by Graves County athletic director Khristain Elliott.
“Coach Dunning hit the ground running, and although we all had confidence in the job he would do when we hired him, he far outperformed our expectations,” Elliott told The Sun.
“Lyndon is one of the most respected coaches in the region, and when the position came open, we felt he was the perfect fit. Given all the challenges this season presented with limited preseason, we are extremely excited to see where he can lead our program when we don’t have the restrictions we have had this year.”