Pryor put Cowley College volleyball on the map

Joanna Pryor

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series on the 2020 Tiger Hall of Fame.

Joanna (Howell) Pryor, who experienced success as a player and coach at Cowley College, will be inducted into the Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame on Jan. 18.

Pryor grew up in Attica and began playing volleyball in the fifth grade. The rest, as they say, is history.

“The Attica High School volleyball coach asked me to come to the high school and middle school camps to shag balls. It was a way of being around the game, even though I was not old enough for organized volleyball,” Pryor said. “Our small town had a history of successful volleyball — it was just something you did. Volleyball also came naturally to me over other sports.”

While in high school Pryor helped Attica to qualify for the state tournament three out of four years, placing third and second in two of those three years. Her stellar play earned her all-league honors three times, as well as all-state honors twice.

As a senior in high school she was being recruited by several schools. Deb Nittler, who was the coach at Cowley at the time, was very persistent in the recruiting process.

“I didn’t know anyone at the school and found it to be a great opportunity to branch out,” Pryor said. 

Despite being homesick for a while, Pryor persevered and was an all-conference and all-Region VI selection both of her years at Cowley. She was also named the first Student-Athlete of the Month when the award was implemented.

With Pryor leading the way, the Lady Tigers went 38-24 in 1996 and 39-22-1 in 1997.

She returned to coach at Cowley from 2001 to 2008.

“I honestly didn’t think about coaching until I started playing at Cowley,” Pryor said. “I have always had a love for the sport, but never imagined it would take me this far. When I left Cowley as a student, I told then-Cowley athletic director Tom Saia that I wanted to be his next volleyball coach. When Deb retired from coaching, she called me, and then miracles happened and he hired a coach that had little to no coaching experience and the rest is history.”

Pryor said working for Tom and then Cowley president Dr. Patrick J. McAtee was one of the best situations that could have happened.

“Those were two passionate guys about everything that they did,” Pryor said. “Dr. Pat cared about all aspects of the college, not just academics, but athletics, theatre, music — you name it. With his support, Tom was able to build a dynasty in almost every sport. I have only worked for two athletic directors in my career and have been lucky enough to have two of the best. Tom had the ability to support and guide his coaches to excel as coaches and people. If there was a way to get it done, we would get it done. You always knew what you were going to get with Tom, a competitive and supportive nature.”

During Pryor’s first three years as coach, Cowley competed in the NJCAA Division I with all of the community colleges in Kansas. This made for a much more difficult road to the conference championship that was the automatic qualifier for the national tournament. That changed in 2004 when Saia decided it would be a strategic move to go Division II and compete where the scholarships were the same as the rest of the country.

“With this move he allowed me to recruit the maximum number of international players allowed, which was three,” Pryor said. “Throughout the years I was able to draw some of the best American players to complement our international players and it turned out to be a recipe for success.”

Pryor’s overall record was 218-93-3 in eight seasons as head coach. The Lady Tigers were 93-64-3 when they competed in Division I. After moving to Division II, Pryor led the squad to a 121-28 record.

The Lady Tigers were conference champions in 2005, 2006 and 2008. They were district champions in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 and Pryor was named District Coach of the Year each season. She helped Cowley to win at least 20 matches each season, and took the Lady Tigers to the NJCAA tournament in each of her last four seasons, including a national runner-up finish in 2005 and a third-place finish in 2006.

All totaled at Cowley, Pryor coached eight All-Americans, five Academic All-Americans, 19 All-Region/All-District Players and 28 All-Conference Players.

“I enjoyed everyone I worked with, from coaches to instructors to maintenance — it was a great family,” Pryor said. “The other memories are my players. I had some of the best people play for me. I am friends with many of them to this day. They have grown to be wonderful for society. That is what makes coaching worth it.”

After leaving Cowley she went on to coach at NCAA Division II Newman University for two years before moving into athletic administration as the associate athletic director and compliance director. She compiled 25 victories overall during her tenure, and was named Heartland Conference Coach of the Year in 2010 after leading the team’s first winning conference record as a member of NCAA Division II.

She went on to become Newman University’s athletic director and the only female athletic director in the MIAA.

When Pryor first started coaching at Cowley, she told herself that she would try to move into administration in three to five years years, then ended up coaching for 10 years.

“When the opportunity arose at Newman for me to make that move, it wasn’t without careful consideration,” Pryor said. “I remember something Tom told me when I was coaching at Cowley: ‘If you ever lose that nervous feeling before a game, that is when you need to get out.’ I hadn’t lost that feeling, but knew that the opportunity might not come up again when I was ready. Being in administration allows me to get to know all of the teams and not just my team. I have enjoyed that part of it the most.”

While serving as Newman’s athletic director, the men’s and women’s basketball teams have qualified for the NCAA Division II tournament. Women’s basketball has been regular season conference champs, bowling has made many trips to the national tournament, and the school recently won its first-ever NCAA national championship in wrestling.

Pryor and her husband, Nathan, who was the former head coach of the Cowley golf program from 2003 to 2005, have a son, Calvin, and two daughters, Logan and Jordan.

Pryor said joining the other inductees in the Tiger Athletic Hall of Fame is a recognition she did not see coming.

“I most certainly will be in good company,” Pryor said. “There are quite a few people that I love and respect on the (Hall of Fame) wall. I guess I have always remained humble and never seemed worthy of recognition of any kind. However, I am very honored. Cowley has provided me with so many wonderful memories, both as a player and as a coach. I met some of my best friends for life at Cowley. There will always be a special place in my heart.”

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