October 23, 2021

‘Eric was special’: Coach, mentor mourned

Whether it was a youth event or a school sports event, Eric Prior was there — coaching, watching or mentoring. Sports were a big part of Prior’s life, but mentoring kids through coaching was an even bigger part.

Prior, the boys’ football and basketball coach in the Groton school district, died Tuesday afternoon after playing basketball at the YMCA on Tompkins Street in Cortland.

Prior, 51, of Cortland, also coached sports at different levels at Cortland High School as well as working with countless youth teams. He was also involved in Cornell University’s summer basketball camp and was to be an assistant coach with the Tompkins Cortland Community College men’s basketball team this season.

Cortland Youth Bureau Director John McNerney said Prior had a “special aura.”

“Eric was special and had a gift for making every youth feel special regardless of their skills or ability,” McNerney said.

McNerney said Prior coached kids on life lessons and was a father figure to many. He was also the guy who supported every kid and every team.

“You’d regularly see him at games, supporting teams besides the ones he coached,” said Jeff Johnson, the former Cortland High School athletic director. “It says a lot about him that he’d go out of his way to let kids know that he supported them in whatever they did and cared about them being successful.”

When School Resource Officer Robert Reyngoudt started at the high school in 2004, Prior was already a fixture. However, the two had already known each other from participating in sporting events over the years, including a flag football team at the school where their team didn’t win the entire season.

That didn’t matter to Prior though, Reyngoudt said, because it was about having fun.

“I’m hard pressed to find anyone that wasn’t positively affected by coach Prior,” he said.

Prior was also a police commissioner with the Cortland City Police Department. Chief F. Michael Catalano said the department was saddened by the loss.

“We’re still trying to wrap our heads around that,” he said. “He always had a positive attitude. It was great to have him on the board as long as we did.”

Lt. David Guerrera said he knew and respected Prior, who coached and mentored his daughter while she was on a traveling basketball team.

“All the girls loved him,” he said.

Cortland emergency crews responded at 12:24 p.m. Tuesday to a medical incident at the YMCA, but Deputy Chief Wayne Friedman declined to give details, as did Margo Upson, the YMCA membership director.

However, Jennifer Alexy, a family friend who created a GoFundMe page to raise money for Prior’s family, said Prior was the patient and had been playing basketball at the YMCA. The page had raised more than $32,000 by this morning — tripling the $10,000 goal.

Prior was a graduate of Bath Haverling High School and attended college at SUNY Cortland for physical education and then Tompkins Cortland Community College for recreation management.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.