A basketball player shoots a layup
Josh Pritchett has become the leading scorer for the Evangel Valor as the team has spent most of the season in the NAIA top 25. (Photo: Evangel University Athletics)

Football quarterback or basketball guard? Evangel, Rockhurst or somewhere else? Josh Pritchett has come a long way since weighing his sports future as a senior at Rolla High School.  

“When I was in high school, I liked football,” Pritchett said. “But I didn’t really get decent at it until my senior year. I just liked basketball more.”

Then it came time to select a school. With offers from Rockhurst and Evangel, Prichett went back and forth before choosing Rockhurst. But after one redshirt year at the Kansas City school, he did what a football quarterback might do and called an audible.

“After a year, I wasn’t liking it up there,” Pritchett said. “I was in contact with (Evangel coach Steve Jenkins) and he was grateful that I wanted to come to Evangel. Now, this is my fourth year here and second with coach (Bert) Capel. I feel like I fit in well with the school and the program.”

Capel quickly agrees. In his second season after succeeding Jenkins, he has watched Pritchett evolve as a player and help the Valor become one of the top 25 teams in the NAIA. 

What began as something of an uncertain journey has worked out nicely for all parties. Pritchett is averaging a team-leading 19.9 points in helping Evangel to a 17-5 record and No. 19 national ranking entering home games Wednesday night against Benedictine and Saturday against Culver-Stockton.

“He’s evolved and matured, and he understands what he can and can’t do,” Capel said of his sweet-shooting 6-foot-4 senior. “He’s got a high IQ, so he has a good understanding of the game. On top of that, he works really hard.

“You knew eventually it was all going to come together and you’re seeing that this year.”

Hard work in the summer is paying off

Pritchett has started all 76 Valor games over the last three seasons. He’s shooting a career-best 46.3 percent from 3-point range and 50 percent overall from the field. Those percentages have risen notably from a year ago, which Capel credits to hard work.

Work in the weight room and empty gyms in the summer have been keys. Players are supposed to get better as their careers proceed, but it doesn’t always work that way.

“Gaining muscle and athleticism is key to being efficient and explosive during a game,” Pritchett said. “I tried to take that into account and that really has benefitted my game.

“I tried to make (shooting) a focus last summer. It was always something that I knew I could do better, shooting from the perimeter. Just having confidence and putting in the work during the summer has made a big difference.”

Dealing with being a defensive priority

But with that improvement came another element. As Pritchett became Evangel’s top offensive player, opposing defenses made him a priority. Gone are the days when, as a second or third option, Pritchett could catch and shoot open shots throughout a game.

“He gets everyone’s best match-up and they know where he is all the time,” Capel said. “Any time you’re a good player and having a good year and shooting it well, you’re going to get attention. But overall he’s handled it pretty well. He’s done a better job on the offensive end.

“Instead of always running and trying to catch the ball, he’s trying to get other people involved and in turn, he ends up getting open. It’s not always ‘throw me the ball and let me do something with it.’ It’s within our offense, which is exactly what we like to do.”

A basketball player dunks the ball over a defender
Transferring to Evangel after one season at Rockhurst has proven to be a solid decision by senior guard Josh Pritchett. He’s shooting nearly 47 percent from 3-point range. (Photo: Evangel University Athletics)

That can be frustrating, like in last Saturday’s home game against Baker. Pritchett was bottled up much of the way, making only 7 of 17 shots from the field. But he was able to shake loose late in regulation, helping the Valor rally from 12 points down. His 3-pointer with nine seconds to go sent the game into overtime.

Even though Evangel would end up on the losing end, Pritchett said it’s important for him to “always keep the end goal in mind.”

“I would rather us win every game than score 25 every game,” he added. “I try to keep the end goal that it doesn’t matter if I’m scoring, or getting other people open, as long as we win and do what we’re supposed to. That’s the goal.”

Valor looking to recover from two-game skid

Pritchett was a key part of Evangel’s team last season that broke a seven-year NAIA tournament drought. He and the Valor are seeking another trip, but a two-game losing streak has thrown some cold water on things.

Finishing near the top of the Heart of America Athletics Conference could lead to an automatic berth in the NAIA tourney, regardless of the outcome of the Heart postseason tourney. With just six games remaining, Capel said it’s vital to regain the sharpness his team had most of the season.

“It wasn’t just the Baker game, it was a game or two right before that one,” Capel said. “We just weren’t playing very good basketball and weren’t playing very hard. We weren’t guarding like we normally do. Our motion was a little stagnant. 

“We got into some bad habits and it got worse and worse. We had so many games happening at one time, a span of four games in eight days. Sometimes you’re just trying to survive those games and lose track sometimes.”

Pritchett undecided about using COVID year

This could be the final few weeks of Pritchett’s career. Or maybe not. He has an extra year of eligibility, due to the COVID-19 season in 2019-20, but is unsure whether he will use it or not.

Due to graduate in May with a degree in education, Pritchett said a career in high school coaching eventually awaits, perhaps in basketball and football. But all of that is something he’s trying to tune out as the season’s home stretch beckons.

“It’s definitely been on my mind lately, especially as this semester goes on,” he said of the possible extra season as a player. “But right now we’re gonna try to focus on winning these next few games before the conference tournament and do the best we can with that.”

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton