In some years, there are high school teams so talented that a coach’s main responsibility is to gently guide the rudder without messing anything up.
That may have fit the bill for Sam Duane, Jr. at Corona del Sol in 2011-12, when a quartet of star boys basketball players — Calaen Robinson, Avery Moss, Casey Benson and Andrus Peat — lifted the Aztecs to the Division I title in convincing fashion.
Last season, though, he didn’t just steer the ship, he built it from scratch.
Graduation took away all but Benson, leaving questions about rebounding, interior defense and secondary scoring punch.
The summer was key as Duane molded former complementary pieces Bryan Siefker, Adam Gleave and Cassius Peat into main cogs in the Aztecs’ rotation. He continued to add wrinkles and make tweaks as the season progressed.
Nary a player was taller than 6-foot-4, so Duane was adamant about team rebounding, sending all five players to the defensive glass. Corona del Sol often switched every screen on defense, leaving opponents frustrated at the lack of space to drive. Benson turned in an unbelievable season, which made him the Tribune Player of the Year, but the evolution of Siefker into a second standout was just as important.
The Aztecs entered the 2012-13 season as a longshot to contend and ended up with another state championship. For his expert ability to get the most out of this group of players, Duane was named the Tribune’s 2012-13 Coach of the Year for all sports beating out several top candidates including Desert Vista boys cross country coach Chris Hanson and Mountain Pointe football coach Norris Vaughan.
“In the summer we kind of looked at everybody for roles and as November came they bought into them,” Duane said. “Our whole team said, ‘We’ve got to do this together. We’ve got to rebound as a team. We’ve got to score as a team.’ And they really, really bought into it. There was great leadership. Practices were great to coach. They were a great group. I got a lot of joy from our guys playing well together and being a team. I can’t lie. It was very satisfying.”
The buy-in from every individual has always been a part of Duane’s fabric. Corona del Sol has sent dozens of players on to the college ranks over the years, and as one of the most high-profile programs in the state, has talent continuously streaming through the doors.
If there are egos, though, he demands they be checked at the door.
Corona del Sol is one of the few teams that does not publicly post in-season statistics. The players can know their free-throw percentage but nothing else until the end-of-year banquet.
“When guys start looking at stats, sometimes they get off course,” Duane said. “The most important stat for our program is at the end of the game for the Aztecs to have more points than the visitors. That’s what we have to buy into. When you’re winning, guys understand. It’s a lot more fun to win.”
Duane learned a lesson two seasons ago in the Aztecs’ only loss that year to Mesquite. He lost his composure and the players quickly followed suit, allowing room for the Wildcats to pull the upset.
So even when Corona del Sol had its back to the wall this year in the double-overtime second round win over Mountain Pointe and in the championship game against Pinnacle, Duane never panicked, and neither did his players.
“I’ve learned over the years that a team will go as their coach,” he said. “If a coach is going crazy, the team will lose its composure. In the Mountain Pointe game they’d come in (for timeouts), and I’d tell them, ‘Hey, this is fun. This is what you play for. Let’s compete.’”
The Aztecs are stocked again for next year. With the additions of major college prospects former Desert Vista forward Connor MacDougall and Dane Kuiper, Corona del Sol could have one of the better teams in state history.
The roster composition suggests Duane may not have to go mad scientist in 2013-14 like he did this year.
However, MacDougall, who left Desert Vista for Westwind Prep before becoming an Aztec, could be ruled ineligible for some or all of next season after transferring in, and the team is always one twisted ankle away from needing a revamp.
After the job he did this past season, it’s clear Duane is up for the challenge.
“I don’t think people thought we could win it last year,” he said. “We probably were not the most talented team. There were teams bigger than us, teams quicker, teams favored over us. But it’s not about being the most talented team. We were the best team.”