Drury women's basketball coach Amy Eagan says building relationships with players is a key element of her coaching philosophy. (Photo by Drury University Athletics)

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Watch Amy Eagan on the sidelines during a Drury University women’s basketball game and, even if things aren’t going the Lady Panthers’ way, you will see a coach clapping encouragement and vocally urging her team in a positive manner.

Last week’s home game against Southern Indiana was a perfect example. Drury fell behind 8-0 over the first five minutes, missing shots and turning the ball over at a rate clearly at odds with the team’s No. 9 NCAA Division II national ranking.

But as Eagan remained calm, her team settled down. Drury eventually rolled to a 77-58 victory in the key late-season Great Lakes Valley Conference showdown against the No. 25-ranked opponent.

The Lady Panthers again are in the national spotlight, poised to make a deep postseason run with records of 24-3 overall and 14-2 in the league with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

The Amy Eagan file

Age: 44

Record: 48-5 in two seasons at Drury, 235-147 in 13 seasons as a head coach

Accolades: NCAA Division II Coach of the Year, 2020-21; Coached teams on NCAA Division II Tournaments in 2014, 2019 and 2021; All-time leader in wins and winning percentage at Truman State University; Midwest Collegiate Conference Coach of the Year, 2007; All-time leader at Truman State in assists (529), steals (328) and steals per game (3.3); Fourth all-time at Truman State in points scored (1,527)

Anything but easy

It’s been anything but easy circumstances for Eagan in her two seasons at Drury’s head coach. COVID issues have plagued the world and college basketball has been no exception with players missing games and schedules changed on the fly. And this season has found the Lady Panthers without Paige Robinson, the reigning DII Player of the Year most of the way.

Robinson returned in the Southern Indiana game after missing 13 games with a fractured shooting hand. She scored 23 in the return, adding fuel to the hopes that Drury again can climb toward the top of the national rankings.

“It’s completely different when you lose a player the caliber of Paige, a kid that does so many things for us,” Eagan said. “One of the reasons she was DII Player of the Year is because she played on both sides of the ball. So we definitely lost a lot of production.

“We had to find other ways to make some of that up and, if anything, maybe it’s helped our team a little bit because some kids have had to take their game to that next level to help us continue to win.”

Robinson averages 22.5 points to lead the team, with Alana Findley at 15.2 points and a team-leading 7.8 rebounds per game. Ten Lady Panthers average at least 13 minutes per game.

Keeping things positive

Eagan explained that positivity is a big part of her coaching philosophy, both on and off the court. Just as with Robinson’s injury, times aren’t always going to be easy and Eagan wants to be there for her players.

“I’m very relationship-based, I would say,” Eagan said. “Just having relationships outside the Xs and Os and wins and losses is important to me with the kids, with the (coaching) staff, the people around the program and those kinds of things.”

Guard Kaylee Damitz said Eagan’s energy and positivity resonate with the players.

“And I think she’s just very smart and confident in the way she presents stuff to us,” Damitz said. “She’s very energetic at practice and always encouraging. She’s very smart in how she presents stuff to us. I love playing for her.”

Amy Eagan led the Lady Panthers to an NCAA Division II national runner-up finish in her first season as Drury’s head coach in 2020-21. (Photo by Drury University Athletics)

A seamless transition from assistant coach

Eagan’s style has proven a seamless transition in the Drury program’s continued excellence since she was promoted to head coach after Molly Miller departed for Grand Canyon University two years ago after Drury’s 32-0 season.

Drury nearly won it all last season, finishing 24-2 with one of the losses coming in the national championship game. The chance to play for championships is why Eagan, named the DII Coach of the Year in 2020-21, made what some might have viewed as a curious move, leaving a head-coaching position at her alma mater, Truman State, after a 23-8 record and DII regional appearance in 2018-19.

She spent one season as Miller’s assistant and used it as a way to learn and view the coaching game from a different angle.

“I think everybody was a little shocked that I came here to be an assistant for a year,” Eagan said. “I just tell people, who wouldn’t want to do that and learn from one of the best defensive coaches in the nation? I think it was a year for me that was kind of nice, because I got to relax a little bit more as an assistant.

“It’s a different role where you get to step back a little bit and. As a head coach, it’s more of how you want to do things. As an assistant it’s more ‘What does the head coach want? How do we implement that?’ So I had the opportunity to learn a lot of things.”

Eagan and Miller are similar in that they both are considered “players’ coaches” who let the individual talents shine without restraint.

“A lot of people describe me as a players’ coach and, again, I think some of the relationship stuff plays into that,” Eagan said. “I think I have a good relationship with them, but hold them to a very, very high standard.

“As for our style of play, we adjust our coaching to our personnel. I’m not big on ‘This is the only way I’ve done it and this is how we’re going to do it, win or lose.’ We’re going to make adjustments that we need to make.”

As an example, she said last year’s Drury team didn’t have the depth to play 40 minutes of defensive pressure like in Miller’s preferred system.

“We’re going to do whatever we need to do in order to put our teams in a position to be successful,” Eagan said.

This season’s team is back to playing pressure defense, forcing opponents to an average of 24.5 turnovers per game. Southern Indiana had 31.

“We were so active. We flew around everywhere,” Eagan said after the game. “I think we got just about every 50/50 ball.”

A lifelong passion for basketball

Basketball has been a lifelong passion for Eagan, who was a standout guard at South Shelby High School in northeast Missouri and voted all-state in Class 2. She went on to a playing career at Truman State, earning all-Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association honors all four years.

After a brief professional playing career in Norway, Eagan went into coaching. This will be her 13th winning record in 16 seasons.

She credits former Quincy head coach Larry Just with being perhaps her biggest influence. She was an assistant at Quincy in one of her first coaching stops.

“He was an excellent Xs and Os guy, one of the best I’ve ever been around,” Eagan said. “You always want to work for a great mentor and I had the ability to do that. More than anything, he showed me what it took on and off the floor what it took to run a successful program.

“His first year at Quincy, he won zero games. And I came on board his third year and I was there for four years. We went to the (DII) Sweet 16 twice and Elite 8 once, and won back-to-back conference and conference tournament championships. He was just a really, really good coach and I would say he’s been my biggest mentor.”

Eagan has taken those teachings and excelled since, going 48-17 in two seasons at her first head-coaching position, from 2005-07 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. She is 235-147 in 13 seasons as a head coach.

Asked what she would be doing if she had not made coaching her profession, Eagan said she would have loved to do radio as a basketball analyst.

“I did color once a long time ago for a radio station at a game and really enjoyed it,” she said.

But clearly, her passion has her in the right place — on the sideline, encouraging players. The fit at Drury, where Eagan is 48-5, seems ideal.

“We’re trying to win a national championship. That’s our end goal,” Eagan said. “We’ll see where things lie at the end, but I feel really, really good about this group.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Missouri Sports Hall of Famer, Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton