Remembering Russ

Maple Grove girls basketball coach Bill Price talks to his team during a game earlier this season. P-J photo by Valory S. Isaacson

Sometime before the opening tip of this afternoon’s New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class C girls basketball semifinal, Bill Price will say a prayer and then walk out on the court at McDonough Sports Complex on the campus of Hudson Valley Community College in Troy and look immediately at the first row of bleachers across the court from the Lady Red Dragons’ bench.

The second-year varsity coach has been doing that pregame ritual all season, so he’s not about to stop now that his team has reached the Final Four for the first time in program history. Whether someone physically occupies that exact spot at that precise moment, doesn’t matter either, because Price knows who he’ll be “looking” for.

That would be the mental image of his late father, Merritt Russell “Russ” Price Jr.

“Every game my dad was just a fixture for 40 years,” Price said. “He would sit in the same spot in the stands. … He just loved it. It didn’t matter if he had kids playing or not. He’d go to games where he didn’t know anyone playing, because he loved the game, he loved watching it played and played right.

“To see his image there in the stands, it helps calm my nerves before games, to kind of think he’s there and watching.”

The Price family poses for a photo. Photo courtesy of Bill Price

For in meeting Section II champion Cambridge, the state’s second-ranked team, in the semifinals at 3:15 p.m. today, the Lady Red Dragons (21-3) find themselves in uncharted territory, having never advanced past the Far West Regional until last weekend’s victory over Section V’s Oakfield-Alabama.

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Russ and his wife Deanna lived in Jasper, New York, which is located in Steuben County, where they raised 13 children — seven boys and six girls. Operating a dairy farm meant that the entire Price clan had to pitch in while learning the importance of staying on schedule.

“The boys were always working in the barn doing chores (first thing in the morning),” Price recalled earlier this week. “The girls would have to get up at 4:30 in the morning to start their showers, because we only had one bathroom. … They had to get through doing all the things that girls do by the time the boys got in from the barn, so we could get our showers and be ready for school. Now that’s teamwork.

“We got the jokes (like), ‘The Prices need to get their own school bus,’ because we’d fill half the bus every time the bus would stop at our house. Looking back 30 years later, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

The Maple Grove girls basketball team poses for a photo Thursday before leaving for Troy. P-J photo by Scott Reagle

Besides his devotion to his family, his farm and his faith, Russ loved team sports, particularly basketball and baseball, which he coached as his kids were growing up.

“He was a very competitive person,” Price said. “I’ve learned so much from him and how to approach any sport. Baseball was actually his real love. He loved watching it and he loved watching basketball, but he would let the coach do his job. If we had problems, he’d tell us, ‘He’s the coach, go talk to him.'”

Yet, Russ wasn’t afraid to pass along to his children the importance of respecting an opponent, hustling, playing hard and being a team.

“I remember … we’d have great games and, individually, we wanted to look at the paper (the next day) and my dad would take the newspaper and hide it,” Price said with a laugh. “He wouldn’t let us read it after we played well. He’d say to us, ‘It’s not about you. How did your team do?’ It would tick me off at the time, but he was adamant about the team over the individual, which is why he loved team sports.”

Russ would love the way his son’s team has played this season.

Bill Price shares a special moment with his father, Russ. Photo courtesy of Bill Price

Junior Bre Hill leads the Lady Red Dragons, averaging 12.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game while senior Courtney Hemminger is averaging 11.0 points and 4.5 rebounds. Senior Marisa Schuppenhauer (10.2 points, 4.5 assists, 3.3 steals and 3.0 rebounds per game); freshman Sam Snow (8.2 points, 5.6 rebounds per game); and freshman Anna Tranum (6.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game) round out the balanced starting five.

“He’d be proud of me,” Price said. “He wouldn’t say a lot. He’d pat me on the shoulder and probably have some tears in his eyes. His kids meant everything to him.”

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The date was Sept. 13, 2015.

Price was mowing the lawn at his Jamestown home when his wife, Karalea, came outside with the cellphone. On the line was Price’s twin brother, Bob.

The news wasn’t good.

“Bobby was wailing on the other end,” Price said. “I didn’t know what happened. I thought he’d lost a child. You race through your head, and with 13 kids I was going through 13 names (thinking) who just died? … That’s a long list. By the time I got to the end, Bobby said, ‘It’s Dad.'”

Russ, 77, had perished in a car accident when his vehicle was hit by a truck in Greenwood, New York.

“I just screamed,” Price said. “I finished mowing the lawn and I was screaming the whole time, just cursing at God for taking my hero away.”

As a devout Christian, Price knew his father had a place in heaven, but that didn’t begin to take away the horrific pain that he and his family were experiencing.

“I think the Lord used that in my life to kind of wake me up,” Price said. “A few months passed and I was just hanging around the park and watching the kids play (basketball). I just wanted to get involved somehow with sports, but I was struggling. It was four months of hell. I just had to do something to feel close to (my dad) again.”

Ultimately, Maple Grove needed a junior varsity girls basketball coach, Price applied, he got the job, and then, before the 2017-18 season, he took over the varsity reins.

And now the Lady Red Dragons are a win away from playing for a state title.

“When he was younger, he’d always sit up in the top row (of he bleachers),” Price said of his dad, “because he wanted to have a place to rest his back. Later in life, he had two hips replaced, so he couldn’t get up the bleachers. His new spot became right at halfcourt in the front row. You couldn’t miss him if you tried. He always joked with the officials.

“Everyone knew him.”

For those who didn’t have the opportunity to know Russ, Price, a news anchor at Family Life Network, hopes they do now.

“I’m a blessed man,” he said.

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