He may be known as Bishop Brian Prior in the Diocese of Minnesota but to the Freeman High Scotties he's "Coach."
Prior, 50, was consecrated bishop a month ago. But he was courtside back in Yakima, Washington, March 6 to help lead the girl's varsity basketball team to their first state championship.
"They've been waiting a long time for this. Those girls worked very hard. They deserved it. We've been there five times in the last five years," said Prior about the team he has mentored for six years.
"The other team, Granger, was the hometown favorite," he added. "Everybody, all the media had talked about Granger, how they had incredible three-point shooters and no way was Freeman able to defeat them. But we shut down their offense."
His own love of the game led Prior to first coach his two sons, who are now teenagers. It seemed a natural evolution when he was invited to help coach the Scotties about six years ago, he said.
Then, he was serving as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Spokane, a congregation he founded in 1996. Adding coaching to his activities meant summer basketball camps and out-of-town weekend tournaments in the off-season.
Prior, a long-time local, diocesan and provincial youth minister, said volunteer coaching broadened his experience.
"I was not their priest or their pastor or their principal but I was their coach. It gave me a whole other sense of identity that led to a healthy, well-balanced life."
Freeman is a K-12 grade school in Rockford, near Spokane, with fewer than 1,000 students. Most of the team members "have grown up with each other, played with each other" which figures prominently in the team's success, Prior said.
Jill Taylor agreed. She is the mother of Ashlee Taylor, a former Scotties player and currently the team's head coach and at whose wedding Prior will officiate in September.
"Brian is like family to us," Taylor said during a March 11 telephone interview from her Spokane Valley home. ""It's a big job to take care of 12 girls on a team. He's great with the kids, and with the parents, too."
Her youngest daughter, 17-year-old MacKenzie Taylor, is a current team member and was one of two high-scorers, leading the 56-35 win against Granger.
"Brian is so inspirational to the girls," Taylor added. "Everybody has a bad game or whatever, but he's always there to encourage them and to keep them working hard."
That encouragement was much appreciated after a crushing defeat in last season's semifinals against Seattle Christian High School.
"We were up by one and there was a bad call at the very end of the buzzer," recalled team forward Megan McIntyre, 17. "They beat us by one point. It was our only loss the whole year, in the semifinals. They called a foul, and the other team made their free throws. It was awful."
This year McIntyre, one of the high scorers at 13 points, savored the win.
"We came out and we played hard," she said during a telephone interview. "We had good defense, and jumped out on a good lead. We kept up our intensity the whole game, we never really let down. It was so exciting. We worked so hard for it."
So did Prior, whom she first met during the summer leagues before she joined the team. "I will miss him tremendously," she said of Prior's move to Minnesota.
"He's really good to us kids. We're like his second family. He loves us all tremendously, like his own kids. He's a really good person."
Prior, who was consecrated the ninth bishop of Minnesota on Feb. 13, said he could "write a book about the transferability of basketball and our good, scriptural theology." There are the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, right use of gifts, and, of course, community."
Like life, "basketball is not a single person sport," was a frequent message for the team, he said. "Just take the center and have her play as a point guard and see how quickly they can't do that. Everybody has their gifts; everybody brings something to the team."
Leaving his volunteer coaching position is one the hardest things about his move to Minnesota, he said. "I miss the parish, too, but leaving those girls is hard."