The pandemic has forced the closure of high schools in Arizona, which means the spring sports programs were also cut short. But one activity across the sports landscape is progressing as usual…the hiring and firing of coaches.
And a sudden flurry of activity last week is altering the landscape of girls’ basketball.
Within the span of just a couple of days, four of the more high-profile, big-school girls’ basketball programs in the state announced a change in leadership for their teams going into the 2020-21 season.
Millennium High School, the two-time defending 5A state champion, hired Kevin Thomas to replace Cory Rojeck, who has been building a top-tier program at the Goodyear school for the past 11 years. And when Pinnacle High School replaced Rick Bunger, who resigned after six years leading the Pioneers’ program, it hired Erica Farnsworth away from Shadow Mountain High School — which has left that 4A power house in east Phoenix without a head coach.
And rounding out the stops on the rapidly-spinning coaching carousel, Mountain Pointe High School may have scored a coup by hiring former college standout and WNBA player, Rehema Stephens, as its third coach in as many seasons to hopefully restore stability at that Ahwatukee school.
The coaching hire that will likely get the most scrutiny in the coming season is at Millennium, since Kevin Thomas will be stepping into some pretty big footprints. His predecessor took over a 9-17 team 11 years ago and built the program into a consistent state championship contender. Cory Rojeck posted 20-win seasons nine times and his 2015 and 2017 teams finished runners-up before the last two seasons ended with 5A state titles.
The fact that this will be Thomas’ first head-coaching job will add to the pressure of preparing next year’s squad to try to turn back-to-back titles into a three-peat.
Thomas spent eight years as an assistant boys’ basketball coach in Indiana before coming to Arizona in 2018. He stepped away from coaching for the next two years to concentrate on getting a masters degree in Career Leadership. He and Roject, who moved with his family back to Ohio to be with family, both taught classes at Millennium.
At Pinnacle, Farnsworth takes over a program that Bunger built from a 5-22 team his first season into a title contender that has averaged 24 wins a season the last three years and advanced to the state semifinals the last two.
But Farnsworth’s move to Pinnacle is also a blow to the Shadow Mountain program, where she spent nine years building that program into one of the state’s best. An Arizona Republic Coach of the Year candidate last season, she led the Matadors to a 25-4 record and 10-0 mark to win the 4A Skyline regional. After winning the 4A state title in 2019, the Matadors advanced to the semifinals last season.
Mountain Pointe will also be working with a first-time head coach next season as Stephens will attempt to take a successful, high-profile program to the next level. Her predecessor, Donnis Henry, who left after just one season, led the team to a 16-8 record and a run to the 6A state quarterfinals. Before him, Justin Hager posted four straight winning seasons that included three 20-win records and a state semifinals appearance in 2017.
Although she has no experience as a head coach, Stephens has a solid basketball resume. When she graduated from UCLA in 1992, she was the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer. She went on to play for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs in 1998 and also played in the international leagues.