Coaching transitions are rarely smooth and when Steve Weeks took over the Waxahachie Runnin’ Indians at the start of the 2008-09 season he knew there was plenty of work to be done.
Waxahachie just missed the playoffs in his first year as head coach and year-by-year the team has improved its win total and this season made the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
Led by a strong senior class, the Indians defeated Pflugerville Hendrickson in the bi-district playoffs before falling to Jacksonville in the area round after a spirited comeback led by junior Austin Combs.
Hendrickson was ranked No. 12 in the state and was the District 16-4A champs but the Indians already had experience knocking off a top ranked team as they defeated No. 7 Ennis 69-65 just two weeks earlier.
The bi-district champs finished fourth in District 15-4A after overcoming several obstacles during the season, obstacles that proved to be good building blocks for the team to develop the chemistry needed to make the playoffs in a tough district and then upset a heavily favored team.
LaDarius Brown finished the season as the leading scorer for the Indians and was named first team all-district, completing a three-year varsity career while seniors Nykil Lawson and Chris Henderson also earned all-district honors. Seniors Larry Ranson and Randy Head proved to be valuable pieces for the playoff push while juniors Don King III and Austin Combs earned all-district recognition and are two keys pieces for next year’s team.
Weeks took time out of his offseason schedule to sit down with Waxahachie Daily Light Sports Editor Chad Wilson to talk about the season and look ahead to a promising 2011-12 campaign.
Overall, what are your thoughts on the 19-win, bi-district championship season?
This season, while having more than its share of ups and downs, was perhaps my most fulfilling. We had to overcome several obstacles early in the season losing key members of our ‘family’ that we were counting on coming into the season. One of those guys, Bryant Harris, was a three-year starter and a kid that I was very close to. We were really looking for him to be a key contributor both on and off the floor.
But one thing about losing Bryant and the others we lost is that it provided an opportunity for some other kids to step up and showcase what they could do.
That is what was really fun about it, to see the other kids step in and fill the gaps we had in our team. Watching those guys develop the way they did and then accomplish what we did amidst all the distractions and adversity was really special. It turned out to be a great year and a step in the right direction for our program.
You have had two other pretty talented teams since you started your head coaching career two years ago but neither of those teams made the playoffs. What was the difference between this year’s team and the last two?
The first year we were coming off a good year and losing a lot of kids. Gary Mason Jr. and others were good, quality players and helped us go a couple rounds deep in the playoffs. We lost our top-seven kids and so we knew coming back it was going to be difficult and did not know who was going to do what.
That was kind of before LaDarius showed up on the scene. I was expecting a difficult year but it was a great group of guys that worked really hard. Derek Koch and the others we did return were a great group of young men that I enjoyed very much. Our record was not great (9-22) but we ended up having a chance as we missed the playoffs by one game. I thought it was a good start for me knowing we had lost so much. We made some strides throughout the year.
Last year I felt like we took a step backwards. We had some of those kids returning and Jamison Sterns moving back in to the district and I felt like we had an opportunity to be a very good team. They ended up going real deep in the football playoffs and when we got those guys in we never seemed to develop a lot of chemistry between the offseason basketball kids and the football guys coming over. We just never did really click as a group going 12-20.
Coming in this year we had some kids coming back but only two or three with much varsity experience. I would say the difference though looking at all the seasons, especially this year and last year, would be the chemistry in the locker room.
This year, we had kids that played hard for each other, that shared the basketball and did the little things required to be successful. It was a fun group of guys but also one that understood the importance of working hard and working together as a group.
Was there a player or maybe a couple of players who stepped up and played a bigger role for the team this year than you initially anticipated?
We knew kind of what we would get from LaDarius and we thought we knew what we would get from Bryant with both of them playing on the varsity since their sophomore year. We also knew Austin could score but with Don, Nykil, Robert, Larry and Chris we knew they had some ability but none had a lot in the way of experience.
One thing I was excited about was having Chris at the point guard position. He brought some toughness to our lineup, a guy who could handle the basketball, and someone who understood the game really well. As it turned out, he was a huge factor in our success.
Also, Nykil Lawson and Don King really came on at the end of the year. Each averaged around 10 rebounds a game over the last month of the year. Larry turned out to be a great energy guy who came in and played very good, tough defense for us.
You had a senior-led team this year and now have to rebuild for next season. Have you started looking ahead to next season and what you may or may not have?
Yeah, definitely. We started looking immediately, and the first thing that stood out is the fact that a huge part of our team has moved on. With the seniors gone and the football players moving back to offseason football, we are left with only Austin Combs who was with us all year on the varsity.
Ryan Wilt moved up late in the season as a junior and we are excited about him. We also have seven or eight soon-to-be sophomores in offseason and a couple of soon-to-be juniors that are going to get their opportunity to step in and contribute. It is going to be a whole new team next season, there is no doubt about it.
Austin is obviously going to be able to score for us. When you have a kid that can shoot it like he can, he is obviously going to be a big part of what we do next year. But we’ll be looking for other guys to step up as well.
Who are some of the football guys you will be counting upon to jump in quickly once the football season is over?
Don played varsity for us the last two years and will be a three-year varsity player we will be counting on next year. Also, Rob Lowe, who moved in from Cedar Hill, showed he can do a lot of things for us. We’ll count on him to come in and provide some athleticism and a guy who can shoot the basketball.
Zach Rieper is going to come in after football and provide us with some scoring and size. Michael Veail will be a senior and is a guy who is very versatile on the floor. He is an outstanding athlete who we expect big things from. Quadarius Waters is another guy with a lot of ability.
We are going to try and push him along since we are losing our point guard. He is a kid that has the ability and overall skills to be an excellent player if he really pushes himself during the off-season. Some other football players we will be counting on are Yusef Reown, Nathan Roberson, Devin Chandler and Tracy Morrison. Roberson is a kid we’re excited about in that he brings a lot things you can’t coach. He has good size, jumping ability and a real knack for blocking shots.
You reached the playoffs in your third year as a head coach and along the way beat two top-ranked teams. How do you keep the momentum going next season with a new cast?
I tell the kids that having a good team that makes the playoffs is great, but good programs do it every year. That is the kind of program we want to have. We want to expect to make the playoffs and do things once we get there.
I feel like anytime you have a year like this, that you entered it unsure but got good results it is a step in the right direction. A lot of guys were moved up to varsity in the end and got a taste of what it can be like to be successful and make the playoffs. They were all super-excited about it and I think some of that is going to carry over.
Those guys feel like they are going to make the playoffs and that is the way we want it. We need to have a good offseason and those guys that are in football need to spend some time in the gym over the summer playing basketball.
I tell them not to just pick up a basketball in November after not playing in seven or eight months, but to practice as much as they can year-round. Hopefully with the success we had this year it will be a step in the right direction and those guys will be excited to come to basketball next year and hopefully we will start off next year where we left off this year.
There were a lot of big games and good story lines this season but overall what was the biggest thing that stood out to you, on or off the court, about the season?
The Ennis game was really big. We were in a situation in that game where I thought we were in a must-win. Those guys were pretty highly rated. We played them pretty close over at their place but in the end, like most good teams, they pulled away and found a way to win.
When they came over here it was kind of the same situation. We played tough and we were kind of in control but again we let it slip away late. They took the lead pretty late and it was at that point it could go one way or another, either they find a way to win another close game or we step up and get it done.
Our kids came back at the end and made the plays down the stretch to win it. That to me was a defining moment in our season and in our program I am hoping. We found a way to win a close game we really needed to win and we proved we can beat a really good team.
Ennis was a really good team. I know they ended up losing to Hutto in the first round of the playoffs but there is no doubt they were capable of beating anybody. They beat DeSoto earlier in the year and they almost finished undefeated in district with their only loss coming to us.
For us to see we can compete against anybody and pull out a win on any given night was big for our kids.
The Pflugerville game was awfully fun. Coming in, we thought we had a sound game plan but we also knew they were a talented team. We knew it was going to take our best effort to come out with a win.
The kids were super excited just to be in and you hope they aren’t satisfied with that. But our guys went down there expecting to win. For us to get behind late in the game but to come back and win was exciting.
This year’s seniors were sophomores when I first got the head coaching job so this was special for me to see those guys get that kind of a win in the playoffs.
One of those sophomores you had when you came in was LaDarius. This year could have been a distracting year for him on the court as he entered the season being heavily recruited for football and after he signed in February his mother passed away before the playoff game. All that could have shaken up a normal teenage but he continued to be one of the most dominant players on the court for you each night. What did he mean to the team this season?
You always knew what you were going to get from him. He was always going to play with a lot of energy no matter what. He might not have a great shooting game but he would always run the floor and play great defense. He also took on more of a leadership role out there and that is something we hoped for all along. We lacked leadership last year and he made a big difference this season.
He came in that morning after his mother passed away and I was going to talk to him about it while the other guys were warming up. He had only one question. . . .can I still play? I would certainly have understood either way but was excited to have him play. He had arguably his best game as a Waxahachie Indian that night with 17 points, 10 rebounds and six steals. He was the best player on the court that night.
Did it shock you that he was never rattled on the floor no matter what was going on?
No, not really. That has always been the kind of player he was. He has always been a guy who was at his best when things were tough. He was a great leader by example for the other kids. Being such a high profile athlete, you might have thought he would decide he didn’t have to work hard or do what was expected of everybody else. But nothing could be further from the truth. He never gave us anything but his best.
As an Oklahoma fan, were you disappointed he chose TCU over OU for football?
I certainly tried to nudge him in the direction of Norman over the last two years but I am just happy about how he handled the entire process.
Frankly, he chose very wisely I think. It was fun to watch him have the opportunities to meet with those guys and see what it is all about at the next level. He has such a great upside as a football player. I do not think he knows yet how good he really is. I don’t think anybody really knows because he is still developing as an athlete.
He has only got three years of varsity athletics under his belt and before that there was not really much at all as far as organized athletics He is one of those players you might only have the opportunity to coach once in a lifetime. For a football guy to come in and be as good as he was in basketball shows the type of athlete he was.
It was a good year. I hope we can use this year as a springboard for next season.
District is going to be tough again next year as West Mesquite will be good, Ennis will still have Mason and then Red Oak. I expect it to be a lot like this year with the games and the playoff race going down to the wire.