ANNA – Anna’s new girls basketball coach Albert Cager, will tell you this about his life’s path to date: “God has put me in positions where he needed me to be at certain times.” He’ll also tell you not all those positions have been pleasant, but they’ve led to where he is now — and for that he’s grateful. Cager’s path led to Anna one year ago, as part of then-new Coyotes head coach Kyle Phifer’s staff. After a district-championship run with Phifer, he was picked in March to remain onboard the Anna train as leader of the Lady Coyotes.

“When the situation opened up it was almost like the perfect pieces of the puzzle,” Cager said. “I’m blessed to be in the position where I am. I don’t take it for granted.”

Except for the last three years, Cager, 34, has always coached girls.

“Coach Cager has been a great addition to the Anna boys basketball program this year,” Phifer said. “Even though we hate to see him leave, we love the fact he is staying a part of the Anna family. He has a great knowledge of the game of basketball and brings an unbelievable energy to whatever he does. No doubt in my mind he will be a positive addition for our girls program. I couldn’t be more happy for him.”

Anna Athletic Director Jason Heath sees the same promise in Cager.

“He brings a lot of energy into the girls basketball program,” Heath said. “One can see the passion and love for the game that he has in talking to him or watching him coach. … He enjoys kids and wants to see them excel.”

Early setback

Cager was born and raised in New Orleans, and he learned to face down adversity at an early age. By 12, Cager said he was considered by many to be one of the top young basketball prospects in New Orleans. But by 13, he was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

“I was a three-sport, little-league star,” he said, “and they basically said you won’t be playing any more sports.”

He and his mother, though, didn’t accept that forecast and set a goal of his one day earning an athletic scholarship. That mindset – and his trust in God, he said — carried him through.

“It’s just the power of faith,” Cager said. “Not only did I beat arthritis, I went on and played college basketball at a Division I level. So it doesn’t matter what someone else says about you, what doctors or what ‘experts’ say about you. If you truly have faith in God, you can really do whatever it is that you want to do. I’m a prime example of it.”

At McDonogh No. 35 High School, a school known mainly for its academics, Cager was part of a basketball team that reached the playoffs three straight years. From there, as a walk-on guard at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Lousiana., he soon earned playing time but then was told no scholarship would be offered the next year. Again, a door would open: NSU’s coach worked with the coach at Cedar Valley Community College in Lancaster, Texas, and, without ever seeing him play, the coach offered him a scholarship. A year later, Cager won a full ride to Faulkner Christian University in Montgomery, Alabama, where he would volunteer as an assistant coach for a nearby private high school team that reached the state title game.

By age 23, Cager had landed a head coaching job at Elmore County High School in tiny Eclectic, Alabama.

“Two caution lights,” he said. “Kind of like what Anna was, five, ten years ago.”

After a turnaround second season there, Cager’s was life was upended by divorce.

“Going through the divorce, it changed me,” he said. “It really affected me. … So I had to step away.”

With family still in the Dallas area, Cager headed back to Texas “on a whim,” with no leads and a few online applications drifting in the ether. Splitting time with two aunts, in two weeks Cager had a job coaching middle school girls in Desoto, a post he would keep for five years. Then after a short, difficult stint at Faith Family Academy of Oak Cliff, he took another leap of faith and accepted a head coaching job at Curtis Middle School in Allen. \

“It was one of the best decisions that I ever made,” he says. “Although I wasn’t at the high school level like I wanted, I was in a position where I learned — and I grew.”

There, Cager said he also learned a secret to Allen’s championship-winning ways.

“It’s not because of their great athletes,” he said. “It’s because of the system, the work ethic, the consistency. Everything they do, they do for a purpose.”

And during that time, he also became happily married to Jovondra Larks-Cager.

The ‘coliseum’ calls

When Phifer’s call came, Cager says the two made a quick connection.

“We spoke the same basketball language,” he recalled.

Then he toured Anna’s facilities.

“I was, like, wow,” he said. “It was my first time in Anna. If you know anything about basketball, when you walk into that coliseum (the main gym) that we have, it’s a good place to call your office.”

Cager noted that he was a point guard in school and Phifer was a shooting guard.

“So it was a natural relationship that we understood,” he said. “He saw the game differently and we both attacked the game differently, but being so diverse and so alike at the same time, it allowed us to really work well together.”

With the Lady Coyotes coming off a tough 2-8 district campaign, Cager says he hopes to bring a new mindset to the team, namely by making each girl more accountable.

“When adverse situations would happen (last year), they would fade away instead of step up against that adverse situation. Everyone says you’ve got to change the culture, change the culture. What exactly is culture? It’s your habits. … Some things have already turned the corner a little bit. (Former] Coach [Grant] Bergman did a great job. These kids are really fundamentally sound. So it’s not a lot as far as basketball that I’m going to have to change. The most important thing, it’s the mental fortitude that we’re lacking.”

Cager calls on the community to join an “all-hands-on-deck” effort to turn around girls basketball. He notes that he’s been offering free skill sessions to elementary kids on weekends. The sessions, which have attracted 30 to 50 kids, involve simple drills and building relationships. It gives the kids what he calls “a sense of touch to the program.”

One captain named

Philosophically, Cager says he’s both an “up-tempo offense” and a “pressure-defense”-type of coach.

“With the team that we have, I feel like we have about nine or ten girls that can actually contribute to a varsity team,” he said. “With those numbers and the rotation that I plan to have, we’re going to do a lot of pressing. … Offensively, it’s just going to be pass, cut, field, move the ball — allowing the players to use their skill. If you can dribble, I want you to dribble to the goal. If you can shoot, I want you to shoot.”

Cager has already named soon-to-be sophomore guard Marianna Bert as one team captain, based on her work ethic.

“Anytime we have an open-gym situation, she’s the first one in the gym,” he sad. “I hope that is going to trickle down to the rest of the girls. That doesn’t mean she’s the best player on the team. That just means that I see the work ethic she’s putting in and I feel like she’s going to be a good leader.”

“We have maybe five or six sophomores that have a chance to be special,” he added. “Having said that, they have to understand that no position is given. … Everyone has a clean slate.”

Cager says he’s a young old-school coach.

“I believe in old-school values,” he said. “But because of my age and the way that I grew up in the hip-hop generation … I understand how to deal with these kids.”

“The future is really bright for us,” Cager added. “We have a chance to set a foundation, not just for this year, but this crew can really change the history of Anna basketball. I don’t think small. I didn’t come here to fill a position. I came to win.”

Whether he and Lady Coyotes win or don’t win, Cager’s path-by-faith certainly looks secure.