Last Wednesday, Saxony Lutheran made the first step in what will hopefully be a smooth transition for the girls basketball program by hiring a new head coach in Lance Tollison.
Tollison is no stranger to coaching girls basketball in Southeast Missouri as he ran Cape Central’s program for two years (2016-17, 17-18) and three before that at New Madrid County Central (04-05, 05-06, 06-07).
“I’m excited — it’s quite an honor to be chosen because it’s one of the top program in the area,” Tollison said. “Saxony takes pride in this program, so for me to even be considered and get it is quite an honor for me.”
Tollison certainly has big shoes to fill on Saxony’s sideline as he will be taking over for former Crusaders head coach Sam Sides, who officially retired following this season. Sides, who was inducted into the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 2016, finished his coaching career with a total of 519 wins as he recorded 204 of them at Saxony in nine seasons.
Under Sides, the Crusaders reached the Class 3 Final Four twice and played for the state championship in 2016, where they fell to current and five-time reigning state champions Strafford. Saxony also won eight-straight district and seven sectional titles with Sides at the helm.
Sides announced halfway through this past season he had plans to retire, which was when Tollison became interested in the job.
In his latest coaching stint at Cape, Tollison led the program to an overall record of 25-28 and only finished 2-12 in SEMO Conference play. However, the Tigers had their first winning record in five seasons during Tollison’s last year by finishing 14-13.
In Tollison’s final season coaching at Cape, the team fell to eventual Class 4 District 1 Champions Dexter 64-41 in the district semifinals.
That Bearcats team had players like Chaylea Mosby and Hannah Thurmon, who each went on to play at Three Rivers Community College. Mosby has one more season left at Three Rivers, while Thurmon recently committed to continue her college basketball career at Montana.
Tollison also had two future college basketball players on his own squad that year in twin sisters Abbie and Corrie Reece, who both play for Westminster College.
“[Coaching at Cape] was a good situation for me,” Tollison said. “We had a coaching change that was unexpected, so for me to take over I just felt like I needed to do it for a couple years to kind of stabilize the program. … I enjoyed coaching those two years, so it was something that fired me up to continue to do it.”
Cape had a sub .500 season after Tollison retired by going 9-17 in 2019, but the Tigers produced their best record in more than a decade this past season at 19-9. However, Cape lost to eventual district champions and final-four finishers Cape Notre Dame 70-42 in the district semifinals.
Tollison served as Cape’s athletic director, a position he had held for 11 years, during his time as head coach. Tollison also worked in administration when he was New Madrid’s head coach, and in his final season he led the program to play in its first district championship game in seven years while going 14-14 overall.
The Eagles have now won three district titles since 2012 and just recorded back-to-back 20-win seasons.
This upcoming winter season at Saxony, Tollison’s only responsibility will be coaching the Crusaders. Sides will still be at Saxony next school year by staying on as the athletic director, which Tollison is excited about because he will have Sides to “lean on.”
“I’m excited by the fact of being able to coach and just coach — I don’t know what that’s like,” Tollison laughed. “I think that allows me to be an even better coach and be better prepared for a game because I won’t have to deal with a lot of stuff. It’s going to be nice being retired and sitting around and just working on basketball all day.”
Being retired this past school year allowed Tollison to actually attend several Saxony games during the winter season including the team’s 63-43 win over Doniphan in sectionals. One of the things that drew Tollison to Saxony is the quality of talent within the program.
“[Saxony players] are always just hard workers,” Tollison said. “They’re smart ball players and their skill level is always outstanding. They’re taught well, and that probably starts at an early age in the youth programs a lot of the kids are involved in.
“They outwork teams a lot of times — maybe didn’t have the best talent in the world sometimes, but they always work extra hard. That’s what I’ve always liked about them — they’re aggressive, gritty and aren’t afraid to get on the floor and dive for a loose ball.”
The Crusaders have finished with a .600 or better winning percentage over the last eight seasons and went 18-12 this year and fell one game shy of returning to the final four. Saxony lost in the quarterfinals 52-46 to Licking, which almost dethroned Strafford in the Class 3 state title game but fell 65-62.
Under Sides, a Crusader has earned all-state for the past seven seasons as senior Emma Brune was named as one of the top 20 players in Class 3 this year for the second time in a row following her final campaign.
Brune, who only missed one game in her four years as a starter for Saxony, is one of the three starters this program is losing to graduation. The other two players Tollison will have to replace in the starting lineup includes all-conference and all-district selection Olivia Spanley and Makayla Mueller.
Along with being in the starting five each season, Brune also rewrote Saxony’s record book as she finishes at the top of 14 categories, including being the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,902 career points.
Tollison knows Brune’s presence in the program will be difficult to replace, but he’s confident next year’s seniors are up for the challenge. Next year’s senior class includes returning starters Alice Hogendobler and Sydney Turner along with Maddox Murphy, who made several starts and played starter minutes in the winter.
“We have a good core of seniors coming back that have been in the program now for three years,” Tollison said. “I look forward to working with them and making the transition as smooth as possible for them because they’re a big part of everything. A lot of new coaches come in, and the seniors are the ones outside looking in, and I don’t want that to happen. They’re going to be the reason Saxony remains successful this next year.”
Murphy will return as the team’s leading scorer after averaging 6.8 points per game this season as Brune led the way with 22.6 and Spanley paced her at 13.6 PPG.
Hogendobler, who dealt with a back injury this year, finished fourth in scoring with 6.4 points each contest but hit a team-high 34 3-pointers. Hogendobler also tied the program’s single-game 3-point makes record by hitting six against Jackson.
Murphy finished behind Hogendobler with the second most triples at 32 while shooting 31% from beyond the arc, tying for the second-highest percentage on the team with Mueller.
Turner finished as the team’s fifth-leading scorer with 3.6 PPG, but she will return as Saxony’s leading rebounder after coming down with 2.6 boards per contest. Spanley, Brune and Mueller finished ahead of Turner in rebounds with 8.4, 4.8 and 3.3 RPG respectively.
“I know Sydney puts in a lot of time in the offseason as well,” Tollison said. “I really like the way Alice plays — she’s extremely aggressive and always active. Maddox has a lot of potential and had a lot of fire when she came off the bench. I expect big things from those three.”
Other returners for the Crusaders will be juniors Emma Voelker, McKenna Webb and an up and coming sophomore class with players like Emma Dunning, Abagayle Britton, Anna and Ashlyn Mueller and Kennedy Biri.
The Crusaders are also expected to have an incoming freshman class that is large in numbers with there being as many as 12 that could tryout for the team next season.
“That makes it even more exciting for them and their numbers in the program because I know those numbers were low the last couple of years,” Tollison said. “They are all some hard workers, and I’m aware of them and where they’re at. I’m looking forward to working with them.”