It could be suggested that it was easy to be Jason Atanasoff this season.
With a senior-dominated Prairie School boys basketball team, which included All-Racine County Player of the Year JC Butler, it could be said that all Atanasoff had to do was sit back and relax as the team he created dominated opponents game after game.
Instead, Atanasoff made it as difficult as he could by scheduling the most elite competition he could find for his Division 4 program. Appleton Xavier. Caledonia of Minnesota. Chicago De La Salle.
Instead of fattening up his record with easy victories, Atanasoff wanted to fatten up his team’s chances of a state championship.
That didn’t happen, but write it off as one of those things. When Prairie lost 60-50 to eventual WIAA Division 4 state championship Manitowoc Roncalli March 10 in the sectional championship, it was after the Hawks went just 3 for 22 from 3-point range.
And when the dust settled, Atanasoff was voted the All-Racine County Coach of the Year for the second straight season. Those who voted for Atanasoff understood how he tried to maximize the already considerable talent he had developed.
“When that team had success as juniors, they kind of surprised some people,” Catholic Central coach Kyle Scott said. “Everyone knew they were good, but no one knew how good.
“This year, everyone knew they were really, really good, and they were. The job Jason did this year, with the schedule he played, and the expectations that were on that team, was incredible. They had a bullseye on them all year, and Jason just did a tremendous job. There was a lot of pressure on him and that team to succeed, and they did just that.”
St. Catherine’s coach Nick Bennett had that same admiration for the 35-year-old Atanasoff. The Hawks progressed from a program that went 7-17 in his first season of 2011-12 to one that went 42-9 the last two seasons and Bennett sees Atanasoff as the focal point for that progression.
“Jason was able to take excellent talent and get them to play sound and team-oriented basketball,” Bennett said. “That isn’t easy to do. He is a terrific basketball mind and Prairie is lucky to have him as their coach. Every time we play Prairie, I know it’ll be a spirited, tough, and enthusiastic contest.
“Jason is wonderful leader of their program.”
For Atanasoff, who started doubling as Prairie’s athletic director this school year, the credit should be spread around. And that starts with assistant coaches David Roehl, Matt Joost, Tony Stafford and Dale Hatem.
“I can’t help but think of seven years ago when I accepted the head coaching position, I cannot tell you how many people warned me and shared their thoughts,” Atanasoff said. “They said, ‘You can never build a winner at Prairie in boys basketball. You won’t be able to push those kids, you don’t have basketball players and you cannot win games without having some tough football players.
“But here we are seven years later and Prairie has become a strong program. The truth is, I am very fortunate to have great assistant coaches and they deserve to be recognized.”