Nowadays, the coaching profession doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the staying power experienced by veteran high school basketball coach Mark Prouty.
The 1977 Hamlin High School graduate has fashioned a lengthy career as a boys and girls basketball coach in northeastern South Dakota that actually began 40 winters ago when he served as a student teacher and coach at Clark during the 1980-81 school year.
“I have a lot of passion for the game of basketball and I love to teach kids the right way to do things,” said Prouty in explaining why he’s yet to walk away from his court-side seat.
Prouty’s travels haven’t really taken him that far from the family farm near Vienna where he began to develop the love of the game that he’s cherished throughout his lifetime.
He spent his sophomore and junior years playing for Hamlin teams coached by Richard “Dick’ Baysinger and his senior year under head coach Dave Wagner. The Chargers were rated No. 1 in both of his final two seasons and advanced to the state Class B tournament — under the old two-class system — before suffering first-round losses each year to teams they had beaten during the regular season.
The disappointments didn’t derail his association with the game that included two years as a benchwarmer and one year as a part-time starter under South Dakota Sports Hall of Fame coach Gordon Fosness at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, numerous years of amateur basketball and a coaching career that has officially entered its fifth decade.
“His knowledge of the game is incredible,” said Clark-Willow Lake head boys basketball coach Jerome Nesheim, who’s had Prouty as his right-hand man the past 11 winters. “And he never forgets anything, whether it’s the stuff he learned in 1981 or the stuff he learns today. He may be still old school, but he’s never behind the times and he’s always looking for something new to get better.”
The career, as mentioned above, actually kicked off with his student teaching and coaching stint at Clark that helped him complete his requirements to graduate from DWU in 1981.
Prouty served as the Comets’ C team coach under head coach Larry Warren and assistant Tom Jastram. The varsity squad featured some notable talents and ended up recording a third-place finish in the State B tournament.
The budding coach introduced the Man-to-Man Defensive Shell Drill to the Comets and also recommended that the team employ a 2-2-1 zone press in order to overcome a deficit in the region tournament.
After graduating from DWU, Prouty didn’t immediately start his teaching and coaching career.
After a nine-month trip to Australia, he returned home and settled back to help run the family farm in Vienna.
Prouty got back into coaching when he spent two years as an assistant girls coach under Larry Goebel at Hamlin in the fall of 1984 and the fall of 1985.
Off and Running
The late Gene Furness, a Clark native, was the principal and the late Dennis Nelson, father of legendary Yankton High School standout Chad Nelson and also later Waubay standout Coy Nelson, the superintendent who helped convince Prouty to take over the Waubay High School girls basketball program in 1986.
The Dragons’ success — following a path that was similar to just about every place Prouty has coached — went from 1-18 to 7-12 to 10-11.
Many of the young girls he helped introduce the game to went on to become members of Waubay’s 1993 State B consolation championship team — one of only two state-tourney teams in school history.
Prouty then spent the 1989-90 season as Waubay’s head boys basketball coach, going 5-16. The Dragons, however, battled eventual Region 1B champion Summit to the wire in the semifinals of the District 1B tourney — falling 52-51 in overtime on a missed layup at the buzzer.
Prouty’s teaching career lasted only those four years in Waubay, but his basketball coaching hasn’t stopped.
He took as the head coach of Henry’s boys and girls programs in the fall of 1990. He spent 10 seasons as the head girls coach before the girls basketball seasons switched to the winter starting in 2002-03 and 15 seasons as the head boys coach.
Well, technically, that’s not entirely correct.
“For five of those years, I coached grades 5-6 and 7-8 and the junior varsity and varsity teams — all of them, both boys and girls, without an assistant,” said Prouty.
The Owls accumulated 286 combined wins during Prouty’s tenure, which featured its biggest highlight in March of 1997 when the Henry boys qualified for the state Class B tournament — under the current three-class system. The Owls punched their ticket to state by beating No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Deubrook Area in the Region 2B championship in the Watertown Civic Arena.
It was the first time Henry’s boys had qualified for state since 1924, when the school’s state-tourney appearance was hampered by the mumps.
Another highlight for Prouty during his time in Henry came when he met his eventual wife Donna (Clausen). They have raised two sons (Mitch and Jacob) and a daughter (Mikayla) who also became a part of this basketball story.
Mikayla was born in the district tournament during Henry’s 1997 state-tournament run and kick-started her passion for the game by attending her first-ever state tournament at two weeks old.
Prouty returned “home” in the winter of 2005-06 to become the head coach of Hamlin’s boys basketball program.
His five-year stint opened with an 0-20 season and also included another 2-19 campaign, but also featured some of the same signs of improvements his other programs experienced before it was cut short.
“I just wanted to build a program and some times that would take two or three years or more,” said Prouty. “It was the same way at Hamlin, trying to build a program around some good young kids, but apparently it wasn’t working fast enough.”
Not the End
Let’s suffice it to say that it wasn’t Prouty’s decision to end his stint at trying to turn around the Chargers’ program. It was a situation that has forced many a coach to walk away from the profession.
That’s not the way this story went, in part because of the efforts of Nesheim — who himself has enjoyed a pretty long and successful girls and boys basketball coaching career, all at Clark.
Nesheim isn’t afraid to say he put on his “recruiting” shoes.
“John Brown was stepping down and I was going to be short an assistant coach. I knew from coaching against Mark that he was kind of what we needed,” said Nesheim. “Mark is such a fundamentals coach and he really brings those fundamentals to the team.”
The Clark-Willow Lake co-op started for basketball during the 2008-09 season and the Nesheim-Prouty boys basketball co-op opened in 2010-11. What has followed is an 11-year run that has included 183 wins and 49 losses; state Class A appearances in 2012, 2013 and 2015; a state Class B runner-up finish in 2018 and a state Class B title in 2019.
“There’s no way we’re in this many state tournaments without him,” said Nesheim. “It’s a two-man game, even though he has more experience than I have.”
Mark and Donna’s oldest son Mitch was a key member of Clark-Willow Lake’s state A tourney teams in 2012 and 2013. Their youngest son Jacob was an eighth-grader on the 2015 state Class A tournament team and a leader of the Clark-Willow Lake teams that played for State B titles in 2018 and 2019.
Adding to the story is that Mark also served as Clark-Willow Lake’s head girls basketball coach in 2014-15 — yes, while also serving as the boys’ assistant — when the Prouty’s daughter Mikayla was a senior. The Cyclones went 19-7 and finished fifth in the state Class A tournament at Watertown, the fourth state tourney for Mikayla.
Prouty spent many years coaching the players on the 2018-19 Cyclones — including Jacob — that formed the nucleus of the only state basketball championship (boys or girls) team in the history of either Clark or Willow Lake.
“That was always my focus wherever I’ve been is to develop young players to get the program going,” said Prouty.
Nesheim says it’s the even-keel approach that has served Prouty well as a coach.
“He never gets too excited and never gets too down. He’s always level-headed,” said Nesheim. “He never lets his emotions get the best of him.”
Anybody who has ever coached against Prouty — or even played against him in high school or during those 60-80 game seasons moonlighting as an amateur basketball player while also coaching — knows his competitive fire.
Nesheim used the term “old school” a number of times when describing Prouty’s coaching technique, something that doesn’t always translate well with the modern basketball player.
Yet Prouty is still at it.
“He could be hard on you, but he also was very respectful and expected a lot from you,” said Troy Engels of Watertown, a 1995 Henry High School graduate.
Engels, who was called up the varsity as an eighth grader for the Owls, vividly recalled Prouty’s fascination with fundamentals.
“I can remember we would come in and do dribbling and more dribbling, passing, then medicine ball passing and layups and layups,” said Engels. “Even footwork on presses. He had us doing footwork with chairs above our head. He was just fundamentals through and through. We’d shoot 50 free throws after every practice and 3-pointers after every practice before you could go home. Yeah, he could get a little owly if you weren’t doing what you were supposed to be doing.”
Engels is just one of the hundreds — maybe even a thousand or more — of players who learned the game and so much more from Prouty.
“Yeah, like do it right the first time,” said Engels. “Or do it over and over until you learn to do it right. He had high expectations, but I think you should.”
It’s stories like that and so much more that help justify — needed or not — what Prouty has done all these years.
The best compliment Prouty said he’s received from a former player is — “We never learned just about the game of basketball, we learned about the game of life.”
Prouty went on to explain further that the message centered “around the skills and lessons learned from competing to the best of one’s ability, working hard, accepting authority (referee) decisions and coaching criticism, and winning and losing with respect and good sportsmanship. Life, or games, ain’t always fair but how we react, learn and deal with the situation is still our choice and that most of all, we should try to have to fun doing it.”
Prouty’s career to date has included 21 seasons as a head coach and 12 as an assistant in boys basketball as well as 14 seasons as a head coach and two as an assistant in girls basketball.
The coaching ledger, as of early this week, featured a total of 1,024 games (582 wins and 442 losses). OK, those numbers won’t put him on the list of the coaches with the most all-time wins in South Dakota history — since assistant coaches don’t get credited with those wins, although he does have 355 head coaching wins — but it can’t take away from what has certainly been a long and notable career with plenty of accomplishments.
Nesheim stressed it’s never been about the wins or losses for Prouty and his coaching career.
“It’s really more about the friends and family relationships I’ve developed all of these years,” said Prouty, who is taking his coaching career year-by-year. “We don’t always understand where the Lord leads us, but the blessings and friendships gained by sharing some of my love and passion for the game are immeasurable and hopefully inspirational to others.”