Wolves coaching staff ready to lead ‘Pack Strong’
PEARCY — When the Lake Hamilton Wolves compete Thursday for the 5A state basketball championship at Bank OZK Arena, the pack will be led by head coach Scotty Pennington and assistant coach Jason Johnson.
Lake Hamilton (27-4, 13-3 5A South) faces a familiar foe in Pine Bluff (24-7, 15-1 5A South). The Zebras have beaten the Wolves twice this season in conference play. Pine Bluff beat Lake Hamilton 66-48 in their first meeting on Dec. 24, 2022, and in their second matchup on Jan. 24, the Wolves fell on the road 62-55.
“I have learned from watching coach P and the way he thinks,” Johnson said. “He is finding what works and he is offensive-minded. He was a shooter; I was an old plugger. I’m always looking for if we are having trouble stopping a team I will say, ‘Let’s throw a little 2-2-1 on them, let’s go back into a zone and knock them off balance.’”
Pennington is in his 11th season as head coach of Lake Hamilton, after 10 years at Hot Springs World Class High School as a basketball coach.
“We gave them off Sunday because they were spent,” Pennington said. “We had some guys playing sick throughout the tournament. Monday we did a lot of shooting because it is very important for us because that is what we do. We are trying to emphasize some things that we need to do better to have a chance to beat them.”
Lake Hamilton took down Parkview 79-61, Marion 49-46, and Harrison 65-58 in the state tournament in order to reach the finals. The tournament playoffs were held at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
“I feel like the turning point in our season was the loss to Hot Springs here at home,” Pennington said.
“The two Pine Bluff losses they know are tossup games and the Sylvan Hills loss kind of had a fluke vibe to it. Hot Springs, I think, got our attention and it humbled us. It made us realize everybody is going to play their best against us and are capable of beating us and Hot Springs that night did it,” he said.
“I think guys in practice rechanneled and focused,” Pennington said, “they did a better job of realizing we have to bring it every night. We cannot just go out and expect to win against teams just because we have beaten them before.”
Other than teaching classes, practice and games, the coaching staff has to put in long hours to help make their team successful.
“We spend more time than people would ever understand,” Pennington said. “I am blessed, I have a guy here in coach Johnson that is my assistant. I really do not view him as my assistant, I view him as my co-head coach. We were blessed to be able to coerce him to come here. To have someone of his experience who has been to the semifinals of the state tournament himself as a head coach. He has been there done that.”
Johnson was the head coach at Greenbrier High School.
“I have been here for 10 years. I started with the girls program. This is year five with the boys,” Johnson said.
“My parents moved to Hot Springs, my sister was already here and my brother was getting out of the military,” Johnson said. “We all had kids the same age. It just felt like an opportunity to get closer to family.”
“We just bounce ideas off one another and discuss things,” Pennington said.
“During the games, Jason is constantly in my ear, ‘What do you think about this?’ and ‘Do you want to try that?’ Sometimes I look at him and say, good call, let’s give it a shot and sometimes I look at him like are you crazy there is no way we are going to do that.
“That is his job, and it is a blessing to have someone that has the knowledge that he has,” Pennington said.
“We are blessed to have the wives and families that we do,” he said. “This is what our families know and do too. There is never a complaint about why you are watching film or scouting a game. They get it. My wife would be madder at me if I was not working than if I was.”
Written on the dry-erase board in the coach’s office was a diagram depicting a staircase with all of their opponents from the state tournament inscribed on each step. The top of the staircase says “One step at a time.”
“In terms of play it is really easy to start looking ahead at what is next,” Pennington said. “I think it helped that our draw in the tournament was not like other draws. When you come out of the gate with a name like Parkview, it gets your attention and you know that you must really bring it. We drew that up there just to remind ourselves one step at a time, one game at a time and the big things will take care of themselves. That’s what has happened.”
“Coach P is a great motivator,” Johnson said. “He is good at finding poster board material. He will say, ‘We might be the favorite, but remember last year, we owe these guys.’ It is a challenge, but everything is a teaching moment.”
Johnson keeps the play cards, watches players’ body language, foul trouble and has the court vision for game management.
The Wolves were picked to win the 5A state championship preseason — pressure and distraction can easily get the best of players at any level.
“They are a unique special group,” Pennington said. “You have got five kids on this team that are coach’s kids. Ever since they have been old enough to realize what is going on, they have seen this and know what it is like. It helps our kids to realize those things are nice, makes you feel good getting recognized as a favorite. It does not mean anything when you walk on that floor.”
“A lot of it is self-motivated with this group,” Johnson said. “These guys have just been together and played so much that they know what it takes. They have been there done that as far as falling into those traps of going into a game overconfident. It is still a challenge and coach P does a great job of finding the right buttons to push. This is like 28 years of coaching for me and I still learn from him.”
“One thing that’s different from years in the past,” Pennington said, “we always felt like the hunter. We were always the underdog and this year we had a saying, ‘embrace the bull’s-eye,’ we are that team. We are going to embrace that and we are not going to shy away from it. We are now the hunted.”
Pennington and Johnson both say, “Pack Strong,” the identity of the wolf. “The strength of the pack is the single wolf and the strength of the single wolf is the pack,” Pennington said.
“These guys do not lack for confidence, if they do they have fooled us,” Johnson said. “Just watching them grow up, they have played against the Little Rocks, teams from Dallas and they just believe. Over and over again we have beaten Marion, Parkview and West Memphis. Having been around a block or two that confidence does not come easy.”
“You do not lose you learn,” Pennington said. “We have learned from our losses. From those losses we are better than if we had won those games.”
“There is a really fine line between being confident and cocky,” Johnson said. “I really feel like our kids are on the confident side in a humble way.”
“As a Christian coach I have to believe that there is a lot of God in this,” Pennington said. “When you look back on the season and see he had his hand in that. Sometimes that’s the only way to explain why that happened when it did. We have been able to look back and see a lot of that.”