Family brings Souder back to Mercer as girls basketball coach

Published 11:29 am Monday, June 24, 2024

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Chris Souder never thought he would coach at Mercer County again. But he also never realized how strong the gravitational pull of a grandchild can be.

That 6-month-old grandchild helped bring Souder back to the hometown he left six years ago and to the school where he led the girls basketball team to consecutive state championships.

There were other considerations, of course, but Souder said after his introduction as the Lady Titans’ coach that family was a major factor in his decision once the opportunity to return to Mercer presented itself.

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“This was definitely a family decision,” Souder said.

And some of Souder’s family members tried to influence that decision, particularly his son Connor.

“My son was like, ‘I don’t mean to guilt you, but I don’t want (grandson) Gritton to be 2 years old and you come home and he cries because he doesn’t know who you are,’” Souder said. “And that really is funny, but it hit home.

Souder is home again after six seasons at South Laurel, where his winning percentage was nearly identical to the rate at which he won in 19 seasons at Mercer.

He is one of the winningest coaches in Kentucky girls basketball history and one of only six coaches to win consecutive state championships.

And he is absolutely convinced that Mercer can once again become one of the top teams in the state.

“I told the girls I didn’t come here just to hang out with my family,” he said. “I came here to win. I came here to win at a high level. How long that takes, I don’t know.

“It’s going to take work, but if I didn’t think – even coming home – if I didn’t think that we could build it back up there’s no way I would have left South Laurel because of what we have coming there,” Souder said. “It may be rough for a while. That’s OK. As long as they work I’m good, I can live with the results.”

Souder walked away from a South Laurel team that has won consistently during his time there and that is stocked with young talent. He and wife Carmen decided to return to Harrodsburg, where both of them grew up and where his children – Conner and his wife Carson and young Gritton, and daughter Carli and her husband John Ingram – will be only minutes away.

“‘It was like, ‘This is crazy. We’re at South Laurel, which is a great place, but we’re really just here for basketball, and this is home. So when the opportunity came and once (we) got really into discussions, it was a no-brainer,” he said.

Mercer athletic director Donald Smith said he wasn’t sure he would get the answer he was looking for when he made a second call to Souder, who said no the first time Smith called, but he came to realize those family ties would give him a fighting chance.

“I didn’t realize there was a secret weapon,” Smith said. “I called him back and said, ‘Please, just hear me out.’ If it hadn’t been for Connor and his wife and that new baby, that’s what brought us here today.”

Souder stepped down at Mercer after its second state championship in 2018 to take a job as an assistant coach at Indiana State University. He soon realized that the job wasn’t a good fit for him, and he resigned after less than two months.

He was hired at South Laurel days before the start of the 2018-19 season, and he went 136-63 in his six seasons there with two 13th Region championships and four 50th District titles.

He has a career record of 653-328 over 31 seasons with the Logan County boys and the Danville, Mercer and South Laurel girls. His 626 wins in girls basketball place him eighth on the list of Kentucky’s winningest girls coaches and fourth among active coaches.

He was 490-214 at Mercer from 1999-2018 with five 12th Region titles and 17 46th District titles.

Souder was voted The Courier-Journal Kentucky Girls Basketball Coach of the Year in 2017 and ’18 and was named to the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches Court of Honor in 2018.

“This is an amazing day for the community and for Titan basketball, but really what’s going to happen is it puts everybody in the 12th Region and the state on notice that we have an opportunity to do it again,” Smith said.

Souder was flanked by Mercer’s two state championship trophies as he addressed an audience that included a number of former players, including many of the players who were on those title-winning teams.

Also in the audience was Hayley Spivey, the former Mercer player and assistant coach who succeeded Souder as head coach and whom Souder now follows. Spivey resigned last month to pursue a doctoral degree.

“This program has stayed in the Titan family now for (25) years, and that’s important,” Souder said. “They understand the pride that goes into it, and I appreciate all the effort, time and pride that (Spivey has) put into this program.”

Souder met with the Mercer players before his introduction, and he said there was apprehension as well as excitement among the girls, most of whom didn’t know him.

“I had to try to break the ice a little bit and tell them some of the fun things we do,” he said. “Yeah, we’re going to work hard, but we’re also going to have fun.”