Neil MacDonald says he doesn’t feel a lot of pressure in accepting his new job as the head coach of a high school basketball team that just won its fourth consecutive Arizona state championship – and is expected to win another next season.
Just give it time, coach. The pressure will come.
MacDonald has been on the bench for the past two years as an assistant to Sam Duane Jr. as Duane guided the Corona del Sol High School boys’ basketball team, so he knows what it’s like to be involved with a program that has grown into something of a prep dynasty. The Aztecs lost just seven games during their four-year title reign and put together a run of 70 consecutive wins against in-state schools.
This year they posted a 33-1 record – the only loss coming at the hands of one of California’s top teams and by just one point – and won the Division I state championship game in dominating fashion to become just the third team in Arizona prep history to win four straight, and the first in the last 54 years.
Duane became the first big-school coach in the state to win four titles in a row. And then he quit.
He spent 25 years in coaching and directed the Corona program for 12 years, but felt it was time to begin focusing on getting an administrative certification that would enable him to move into other areas of education.
MacDonald’s elevation to head coach should enable the Tempe school to make a seamless transition since he is already familiar with the players, and apparently plans to stick with the offensive and defensive systems that have enabled Duane to fill the school’s trophy case with new hardware each year.
So without a lot of shake-up going forward, MacDonald will likely enjoy a smooth honeymoon period between now and November. In fact, the parents and players were said to have been given input into the hire, so everybody should be on board and on the same page.
But the pressure will come if MacDonald can’t keep the level of success up where it has been. Sure, another state championship is on everybody’s list of expectations. But if not another title right away, then certainly lots of winning.
What happens if they hit a rough spot in the schedule and losses get strung together? What happens if they hold their own during the regular season, but get eliminated early in the playoffs – or, heaven forbid, don’t make it into the post-season!?
That’s when the pressure begins to take its toll on the team, and even moreso on the coach. Often, it’s more challenging to take over a team that has been enjoying huge success rather than one that needs to be rebuilt. The coach that takes on the rebuilding project isn’t faced with the same high expectations as the guy who inherited the mansion.
And the stable of thoroughbreds that MacDonald will have to work with – assuming they all return next season – give him little excuse for underachieving next year. Duane did not leave the cupboard bare.
Granted, the Aztecs are losing two of the best prep players in the state with the graduation of 6’7″ wing Dane Kuiper (committed to New Mexico) and 6’5″ forward Cassius Peat (playing football for Michigan State in the fall), but they will return two players that will arguably be the best two players in the state next season.
Their 6’2″ point guard, Alex Barcello, will be a junior next year after being named the Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year this past season. He led the team in assists and was second in scoring.
The guy ahead of him in scoring also returns. Marvin Bagley III is a 6’11” post player that runs the floor and handles the ball like a guard. He was the 2015 Arizona Republic Player of the Year as a freshman. The Scout.com recruiting service lists him as the eighth-best player in the country, regardless of grade, and more than one service has him ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018.
Throw in a senior for some leadership and you’ve got a good start on a potent line-up for next season. That seasoned senior would be the 6’3″ starting point guard, Tyrell Henderson, another D-I prospect who was snatched up by Portland State.
There’s still some speculation that either Bagley or Barcello could opt to transfer to a prep academy that puts the entire emphasis on basketball, but both have expressed their intent to return to Corona in the fall.
MacDonald has coaching experience beyond his two years at Corona. He was a head coach at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, coached with Duane at Gilbert’s Mesquite High School, and served as a graduate assistant at Arizona State.
But this next gig is going to be far different than any he has experienced before now. So buckle up, coach, and get ready for the ride.