Barry Fencher called it one of the toughest days of his life.
He met with his Montgomery Academy girls’ basketball team on Wednesday morning and informed them he was taking a similar position at Pike Road High.
“I had to jump in my car and leave,” Fencher said. “I’ve had those girls ever since middle school when they were heading to the seventh grade. They feel like my own kids. I’m really hurting on the inside. I love all of (my teams) the same, but this is a special group that I’ve had.”
Fencher will replace Courtney Ward, who led the Patriots to their first-ever state appearance this past season. Pike Road principal David Sikes said on Wednesday that Ward had turned in her resignation.
“The goal going into the hiring process was to pick up where we left off with last year’s success,” said Pike Road athletic director Joi Washington, the Patriots’ volleyball coach who will serve as an assistant to Fencher as well. “With the entire program in mind, we really wanted to bring someone in who not only had an outstanding resume and basketball history, but whom we felt could continue what we are trying to build here at Pike Road.
“As we transition into a new classification, we wanted to bring in a coach that could build on the foundation that’s already been laid and we feel we did that with Coach Fencher. We are excited about the future of girls’ basketball at Pike Road Schools. “
When school officials reached out to Fencher, he was immediately intrigued by the offer.
“When I played against them last year, I saw the excitement in that program and the potential in that program,” Fencher said. “I never knew they were going to fire Courtney, especially with her making it to the final four but when they called, I had to listen.”
Fencher worked with his daughter’s AAU teams for three years while working with United Parcel Service, then moved into coaching at Montgomery Academy after his retirement from UPS in 2009. Fencher worked as an assistant coach under Anthony McCall on the boys’ basketball team in 2010, then served as an assistant under girls’ coach Glenn Sylvest in 2011-13, stepping in as Sylvest’s replacement when the former left after the 2012-13 season to take a similar position at Brookstone in Columbus, Ga.
Sylvest had guided the team to semifinal appearances in 2007, 2011 and 2012, the last two with Fencher’s help. Under Fencher, the Eagles reached the semifinals every year except 2018 and 2020, losing in the 2018 sub-regionals and last season finishing as the regional runner-up to Pike Road.
They reached the finals in 2016 and 2019, losing to Lauderdale County and Pisgah, respectively.
Montgomery Academy athletic director Robert Johnson has been hampered in the transition to his new job by the coronavirus pandemic and said he wished he could have had more conversations with Fencher while the latter was mulling over the offer, but admitted the huge pay increase may have been too big an obstacle to overcome in Johnson’s quest to keep Fencher at MA.
“I hate to lose Barry,” Johnson said. “He’s been super successful and in the short amount of time I’ve gotten to be around him, I’ve been impressed. At the same time, we wish him the best. I know he’ll do great there.
“As far as moving forward, I’ve been making phone calls. We’ve already gotten a lot of good candidates. Anyone who is interested needs to contact me.”
Fencher said his first mission at Pike Road will be to transform the girls’ basketball program into a community-based program that builds support and interest at the middle school, junior varsity and varsity levels.
“Like my first year at MA, it’s about changing the culture,” he said. “Kids will do exactly what you allow them to do. It wasn’t a team atmosphere (at Pike Road), just a bunch of individuals on that team.
“I’ve explained to (school officials) that I want to do it the right way, that I don’t want my name associated with unethical stuff. You don’t have to worry about me going to anybody’s school or calling some player. I feel like I can develop the players I have. Montgomery Academy is one of the most well-respected programs in the state right now.”
Which reiterates for him why it was such a difficult decision to leave.
“It hasn’t been about the money, it’s been about the kids, the relationships that I had, even with the parents,” Fencher said. “I developed a lot of great relationships with the parents.”
At Pike Road, he lost his inside duo of Koya Knight and Tamirea Thomas to graduation, but returns guards Skye Harris, Sheria Clement and Aaliyah Manora, giving him the opportunity for immediate success.
“It isn’t about the wins and losses,” Fencher said. “Of course, I feel like we’re going to win. They’re loaded at the guard spot and that’s the key in girls’ basketball is having ball handlers and people who can handle pressure. Just talking with the AD, there is a lot of talent there (in the school) that didn’t play.”