An era of Apollo basketball has come to a close, as Natalie Payne is trading in the family atmosphere that she’s played a big part in creating in E-gals basketball history for more time with her family for the foreseeable future.
Natlie’s basketball ties at Apollo run much deeper than some may realize, with her falling in love with the game in first and second grade while watching her dad coach and that passion growing as she watched her brother Jason Powers compete with the Eagles in the 90s and play in multiple state tournaments.
“My dad used to coach when we were young at Hancock County High School,” Payne said. “I lived there for a couple of years until I was in like third grade and then we moved to Owensboro. My brother played and he’s like seven years older than me, so they would go to the gym and I thought he was Michael Jordan. I thought he was just such a good player. Even back then, I idolized him.”
Payne eventually went on to suit up for Apollo in her high school career, putting up 20 ppg while leading the E-gals to three consecutive state tournament appearances in 1995-1997. Her efforts helped her earn a spot at Western Kentucky University, eventually going on to try out for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun—which was relocating from Florida that year.
However, with not enough spots available Payne didn’t make the roster and decided to test the waters overseas. She played a few years in Finland, but eventually realized that she was ready to turn over a new leaf.
“In order for me to keep getting tryouts I’d have to go overseas and be seen,” Payne said. “It was a good experience, but I was the only American on the team. And I’m just so close to my family that I was like ‘I’m going to start coaching and teaching.’”
So when Natalie returned from overseas, her brother Jason was now at helm of the E-gals himself and joined his coaching staff as an assistant for about eight years. This led to her receiving her first head coaching position at McLean County and later on at Daviess County.
She joined Daviess County as an assistant under Pat Hume first, but when she didn’t get the Apollo job after her brother left and Hume took over the boys program, she stepped right into the head coaching role.
When she took over the Lady Panthers program she was also reunited with her former coach and longtime Apollo coach Willis McClure. McClure played a huge role in helping Payne be at her best during her playing days and she said that coaching with him and her brother are memories she doesn’t take for granted.
“I think I kind of had that mind for the game even as a player,” Payne said. “Like my relationship with Willis McClure when he was my coach at Apollo, we fed off each other then. I was just kind of his coach on the floor then. He let me call all the plays and he trusted and valued my opinion so much as a player, so I think it may have started then. I respected him so much as a coach and all that he had done for Apollo back in those days. He built the program. To be able to come back and coach with my family and then with him down the road, it was a neat experience.”
It was actually McClure that got Payne back at Apollo, as the two came over as a pair when some positions opened up at the school. Flash forward to 2021 and the E-gals were able to grab a regional championship, a moment in time that meant so much to her with her father battling cancer at the time—as he’s now in remission—as her parents got to see her excel at the coaching level alongside the people who made an impact on her during her basketball career.
“That was really special because it hadn’t been done since my senior year,” Payne said. “So it was really neat to share that moment with McClure who coached me… My whole coaching experience my parents followed. For them to be able to be there and witness that was special… There were so many seasons he and mom traveled to Nashville every two weeks to get treatment and they’d still make it back for my game. That’s just how committed they’ve been to me.”
She also got to share the win with a close friend, as Laurel Beaty was on the sidelines with Payne as an assistant coach. The two met at Burns Elementary when Natalie’s family moved to Owensboro, as they were part of the Jr. Eagles together, a dribbling team that performed at halftimes of Burns, Apollo, and KWC games.
“I was excited to see another girl joining the dribble team and she was good,” Beaty said. “We became close friends when we played for Burns. She was in the sixth grade and I was in seventh grade. We remained good friends and teammates throughout high school. We both went to WKU, but weren’t as close. She was busy with basketball and I was busy with flag-football and sorority life. I always kept up with her during her playing days at WKU and even when she went overseas.”
The duo played together and grabbed a pair of regional championships for Apollo High School, where Beaty was able to later join Payne after getting out of coaching for a short period of time.
“We had the opportunity to be assistant coaches together at Apollo under her brother Jason,” Beaty said. “After that, I left coaching for a while and started refereeing so we were still in the same circle. I went back to coaching in 2016 at Burns Middle. I always said if given the opportunity, I’d like to go back to Apollo. Natalie gave me that opportunity three years ago to be a part of a very special regional championship.”
Beaty said that it’s Payne’s heart for the game of basketball that has helped them lead Apollo to success wthere it was as a player or coach, as her approach has never wavered over the years.
“Her work ethic, her attention to detail, and her passion for the game,” Beaty said. “From the first dribble team practice to being her teammate from middle school through high school, she was always working harder than anyone else, always perfecting her game, and always getting extra shots up outside of our regular practices. Her approach to coaching is no different. The daily practice plan designed down to the minute, the detailed scouting reports and the knowledge of the game are sometimes just mind blowing. I don’t know if and when she ever sleeps during basketball season.”
That is something her husband and Daviess County Boys Basketball Assistant Coach Bradley Payne is especially proud of as well, as he has had a front row to seat to Natalie’s success after they met while coaching girls basketball at Trinity (Whitesville) and McLean County respectively. Bradley said his first impression of her was how pretty she was, but then they actually talked a few days after she got her first head coaching job about some summer games and they exchanged some contacts.
Bradley said that when they played against each other, her teams were always well prepared. Her teams, from her first team to the last team, always tried to do the fundamental things well first. He said they were always disciplined and had a calm demeanor, something he attributes to the level of care she gives to her players.
“I think of the myriad of things that makes her successful, her greatest trait is making sure her players know that they are loved and respected, regardless of age or ability,” Bradley Payne said. “Kids, more now than ever, need to feel loved and cared for before they’ll buy into anything you’re teaching. She does a great job at that.”
Natalie and Bradley now have four kids together, as their sports world runs wild with Jack Payne and Kaden Payne—who are Natalie’s stepsons and both played last season under Bradley at Daviess County—as well as their daughters Kylie and Eva. With all of them competing in sports, Natlie and Bradley had their hands full while trying to manage the entire family’s schedules.
“Looking back I don’t know how I did it, but when they were both born I was a head coach,” Natalie Payne said. “Doing all the things that a head coach does plus trying to take care of them at games [was tough]. I mean my parents came to every game and they were the glue that held everything together. Because Bradley coached, we would be in Bowling Green with my newborns and my parents would be there while I’m coaching. The girls literally grew up in a gym when I say that.”
Natalie will tell your herself that she wouldn’t change it for the world either though, as she’s loved every second of being a parent and seeing the tight bond that they all share.
“It’s all God’s timing,” Natalie Payne said. “It’s so special to be a part of the boys’ lives and play the role that I’ve played as kind of a second mom. Then to see the boys’ relationship with the girls is what has been so special to me. Even though they’re getting older—they’re 18 and 14—I mean there’s not a day that goes by that they don’t try to play with them or coach them up on the nerf goal in the house.”
But with Kylie and Eva now six and eight years old and getting into multiple activities, this year has been the toughest for Payne to the best mom and wife she could be for her family. Bradley said that the decision to step away from E-gals basketball was something Natalie had toiled with for a long time, as Apollo and its athletes hold such a special place in her heart.
“It’s been maybe tougher than I realize,” Bradley Payne said. “We discussed it a couple of times over the years, and everytime, she would revert back to the feeling of letting her players or school down if she resigned. That’s, fortunately and unfortunately, another beautiful trait about her. She was still putting other kids feelings in front of hers. Ultimately, she knew there’s never a perfect time and had to live with knowing there would be uncertainty and regret initially no matter what.”
That care for the E-gals players from Payne is something that she hung her hat on during her coaching career, aiming to make sure each and every player knew how much she believed in them while building relationships with players that continue to last after they’ve graduated from Apollo.
“Being true to who you are,” Natalie Payne said. “Culture is big to me, as far as belief in each other, belief in the system and trusting the process. When you can have that type of culture with your kids and just that playing for each other mentality, you really have something special. It takes time to build that and things go in cycles, but overall I feel like I did a pretty good job of creating that kind of atmosphere where there’s a belief in each other… When you get the phone calls and the messages from the kids that have moved on and graduated, that means more to me than anything over X’s and O’s or wins and losses and all that. That’s what it’s all about.”
Needless to say, Apollo basketball and Natalie Payne have been tethered together for years, making this a bittersweet moment for her.
“It’s meant everything,” Payne said. “Like I said when I was young I followed Lauri Townsend who ended up being Ms. Basketball here at Apollo and she was a senior when I was a freshman. So I idolized her and the Kim Baughns of the early 90s and those girls. And I went to Willis’ camps when I was little, so I always saw myself in that uniform. So to be able to come back to coach, it’s almost been like a fairytale ending in a way of what I’ve been able to do. Apollo has been good to me.”
With over 200 career wins under her belt and being a true fan of the game of basketball first, Natalie kows that the she won’t step away from coaching forever—even coaching her girls AAU team while Bradley said that they have all been working in the gym together more than ever. But that extra time that she now has free on her schedule is what she’s looking forward to most, as it will allow her to be there for her kids even more than she already has in the past.
“Just the freedom to be with family and not having the set schedule where you have to do this and you have to go there,” Payne said. “It’s just kind of like a weight has been lifted a little bit. As much as I enjoy coaching, it still ties you down in a sense to certain times of the year. So just the freedom to be with my girls and my boys and watch Kaden his sophomore year at Daviess County. You know Jack is graduating, but there were a lot of games that I wish I could’ve seen of his that I missed. Hopefully I can watch a lot of Kaden’s games next year and coach my girls a little bit more, just kind of work with them and be with family.”
Bradley and Beaty know that Natalie won’t be gone from coaching forever also, but are very excited to see what this new phase of life looks like for her. Beaty also added that people better watch out for the Payne girls in the future.
“I’m very excited to see what the next chapter holds for her,” Beaty said. “Her girls are at practice with us everyday. They’ve grown up in the gym. Now they’re going to get to have their mom full time. I don’t think Natalie is done coaching forever, but this is a well-deserved break. Those girls are going to be ballers; she’ll be back.”
But most of all Bradley is excited to see his wife give time to herself, something she’s so selflessly done for years as a coach. He’s beyond proud of the impact that she’s made on local basketball as a player and coach and hopes that the people of Owensboro can see just how much of herself she has poured into the community.
“I’m most proud of Natalie on how true she’s remained to herself,” Bradley Payne said. “Everything she’s ever done, she’s been successful, not just individual records she has as a player in high school and college, but as a leader to young women. She’s always learning, never acting as if she has it figured out. She’s a great listener—I guess that’s probably forced upon her—but she can take the lead when that time comes. She’s a great Christian, Mother, Wife, Daughter, Sister, Counselor, Coach, and sort of cook. You’d never know by talking to her that she’s great at wearing all those hats, but she 100% is. And that’s something for not only myself, but our community can be proud of and celebrate when someone of her stature gives everything she can, back to the very place that raised her.”