Arizona Christian changes women’s hoops coach again

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                </div>Jerry Conner probably figures it’s time to go back to high school again.  This college thing has a way of turning sideways on the ol’ ball coach. After taking his lumps […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Jerry Conner probably figures it’s time to go back to high school again.  This college thing has a way of turning sideways on the ol’ ball coach.

After taking his lumps since taking over the Arizona Christian University women’s basketball program a couple of years ago, the hall-of-fame coach won’t be on the Firestorm bench for a third season.

According to Don Ketchum’s post on AIA365.com, Odell Berry will be taking over the head-coaching job after successfully building a winning program at Liberty High School in Peoria.  Berry was the second coach to direct the girls basketball program at Liberty, since the school opened just seven years ago.

But Berry will probably find out, as Conner has, that the ACU coaching gig is no simple challenge.  And it’s not the first time Conner has tried to make the transition from the prep game to the college game.

Conner reached near-legendary status during his 32 years at Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix.  He was the only boys’ head basketball coach during the school’s existence until his ‘retirement’ in 2006, when he accepted the job of starting a men’s basketball program at Blue Mountain College in Mississippi.

He won a couple of state championships at Shadow Mountain and qualified for the state playoffs 13 of his last 14 seasons there.  The gymnasium at the school was named in his honor.

During his time at Shadow Mountain, combined with a number of career stops at different high schools around the state earlier in his career, he passed the 500-win plateau.  In 2002, the three-time Coach of the Year was inducted into the Arizona Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

But that success didn’t transfer to the college game.  Conner won just three games in three years at Blue Mountain, an NAIA school that, until that time, had been an all-women’s school.

When he came back to Arizona he spent a season as head coach of the boys’ program at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix, but couldn’t resist the challenge of moving back up to the college ranks and accepted a job at Arizona Christian, a small bible-based college in Paradise Valley formerly known as Southwestern College.

But this time it was as head coach of the woman’s program.  Maybe that was part of the problem.  Moving from the men’s to the women’s game requires an adjustment.

His hire showed some promise the first year, when Conner took it from a 3-18 record the year before to 9-18 in 2012, breaking even in conference play.  Then the school moved from the smaller Association of Independent Institutions (AII) conference in his inaugural season to the larger, more competitive Golden State Athletics Conference (GSAC) last year.

Nine wins was not a lot to celebrate, but it was a beginning.

However, the competition in the GSAC proved to be the downfall.  The Firestorm won three out of their first four games and then spiraled into a 4-23 final record, going winless in conference play.

Using Conners’ pressing, up-tempo style of play, his players set scoring records in a non-conference game with California Institute of Technology, beating the then-winless Cal Tech team, 140-83.  That set new school single-game records for most points, total field goals attempted, and winning margin.  It also set a new NAIA record with 127 field goals attempted and posted the third-highest point total in NAIA women’s basketball history.

But that game will stand as the most memorable achievement of the short-lived Conner era at ACU.

Now the school has apparently hired another successful coach from the high-school ranks.  Berry spent four years as the head coach at Liberty, taking over a team that went 4-16 the year before and winning 17 games in his first season.

Last season was the second 20-win campaign and was his best year to date as the Lady Lions finished 22-7 and 13-2 in the region.  His overall record in four years was 71-43.

The major difference in this hire is that Berry has been running a women’s program and should have less adjustment to make moving up to the next level.  That may be enough to get some early traction.

And, if Conner is ready to transition back to the high-school game…there’s a job opening at Liberty High School.

(Photos: ACU Athletics)