GEORGETOWN — The day after her team won the Class 4A girls basketball championship, Georgetown coach Rhonda Farney and the Lady Eagles gathered inside their campus gym to watch an exhibition by the Georgetown Dribblers, roughly 100 elementary-school kids learning the basics of the game.
The drills came to a virtual halt, though, upon the arrival of Farney, her three assistant coaches and the 16 players, the newest stars in this town of 47,480 people. The players and coaches spent the better part of an hour signing autographs and posing for pictures with boys and girls who aspire to be just like them.
The significance of the moment was not lost upon the Lady Eagles or Farney. Most of the young women with sparkling gold medals draped around their necks had been Georgetown Dribblers not long ago, and no one had become more familiar with the youth basketball program than Farney, who arrived at Georgetown High School in 1988.
On March 2 at the Erwin Center, Farney’s decades of scouting and coaching culminated in her first state title as Georgetown defeated Dallas Lincoln 65-60 in the Class 4A final. The victory was No. 971 — against 245 losses — of her 38-year coaching career.
“It’s the first time I’ve finished a season with tears of joy,” said Farney, who has been chosen as the Central Texas girls basketball coach of the year by the American-Statesman. “I believe winning is the by-product of a program that tries to do things correctly. I’m blessed to coach in a community where we try to do things right.”
Georgetown’s state championship represented a crowning achievement for Farney, who’s 56. Next season she likely will become just the fifth girls coach in Texas to reach 1,000 career victories.
Several Lady Eagles said they wanted to win a state title for their coach more than they wanted to win one for themselves. With 7 minutes to play against Dallas Lincoln, though, Georgetown trailed 55-48.
“We have to win it for coach Farney!” senior forward Kaitlin Walla remembers yelling at junior guard Caitlyn Buttram during a timeout. Buttram nodded in agreement, as did senior forward Lorrie Santoy, senior center Hayley Hunter and junior guard Haley Frias.
“Let’s win it for coach Farney,” Walla recalled later. “Those were the exact words we said multiple times to each other (in the game’s closing minutes).”
Georgetown finished strongly, outscoring Lincoln 17-5 in the final seven minutes and taking the lead for good, 59-58, on Walla jumper’s with 1:38 to go. Walla and Buttram were a combined 6 of 6 from the free-throw line in the final 58 seconds to lock down the victory.
“There was something different about this year’s team,” Buttram said Wedesday. “It wasn’t that we were great players. It’s like we all came together as one.”
Before beginning her nearly four-decades-long coaching career, Farney’s first job involved lending a helping hand at The Cottage Cafe, which her parents, Woody and Joyce Appleton, opened in her small hometown of Lometa, about 75 miles northwest of Austin.
The valedictorian of her senior class of 30 students at Lometa High, Farney also was an avid basketball and tennis player who ran track to stay in shape. Beyond that, she also was a varsity cheerleader who found time, too, for membership in the Future Homemakers of America.
At night, Farney and her younger sisters Ginger and Nita would stop by the cafe to do their chores. The day was not complete until all the salt and pepper shakers were refilled, she remembered.
“I was never pressured to get good grades,” Farney said. “It was just expected.”
Always a dedicated student, Farney was elevated from the seventh grade to the eighth at mid-term. The following fall, she found herself in the ninth grade at Lometa High, from which she graduated at 16.
Three years later, she graduated from Howard Payne University after receiving a degree in education. Hired to coach girls basketball at Goldthwaite High, Farney was only a year or two older than the players on her roster.
“I had always idolized teachers and coaches, and I always knew I wanted to teach,” Farney said. “I didn’t necessarily want to be a coach. I made that (110-mile) round-trip between Lometa and Brownwood (home to Howard Payne University) every day with Ronnie Whitehead, who eventually married my sister Ginger, and he convinced me to try coaching.”
Farney coached at Goldthwaite for 10 years, winning 28 games a season on average. She left Goldthwaite after the 1984-85 season and spent the next two years coaching at Ozona High. It was during this time that Farney — now divorced — met “the love of my life and biggest fan,” Bill Farney, who was executive director of the University Interscholastic League from 1995 to 2009.
The couple married in 1987, and Farney became the step-mother to Bill’s two sons and a daughter from a previous marriage.
“I have never had children of my own, but I love being part of Bill’s family,” Farney said. “Together we have eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.”
And clearly, the coach has a basketball family, too.
“I remember coach Farney telling us she doesn’t have children of her own, but that she considers us her own children,” said Amanda Bizzell, who played for Georgetown from 2008-2011. “We all felt like she was a second mother to us because we spent more time during basketball season with her than with our own mothers.”
Farney said about 45 of her players have gone on to become coaches and countless others have played college basketball. That includes Emily Johnson, a freshman at Colorado State who was on the American-Statesman’s All-Central Texas girls team in 2012.
“As a player under coach Farney, I learned to be disciplined when tempted to do otherwise and to be invested in the team’s success rather than my own,” Johnson said. “She taught me how to handle adversity with grace, a character trait for which I am very grateful.”
Two days after their state-championship victory, the Lady Eagles gathered in Farney’s office to watch a replay of the game. Instead of stopping the video to note mistakes, the coach let the players break down the game themselves.
“After we finished, I told the girls I hope this is not the greatest thing that will happen in their lives,” Farney said. “I want them to become great wives and mothers. I want them to accomplish many great things. This is just one step to a great life”
Texas’ all-time winningest girls basketball coaches
1. Leta Andrews;Granbury;1,393-338;1962-2013
2. Joe Lombard;Canyon;1,155-108;1978-2013
3. Jerry English;Marble Falls Faith;1,109-291;1975-2013
4. Sue Cannon;Euless Trinity;1,009-325;1972-2013
5. Rhonda Farney;Georgetown;971-265;1975-2013
Note: coaches are listed with their current schools.