As we begin a new basketball season, let's look back at a stellar coaching job in the 2007-08 academic year, but unheralded and overlooked. It's a great story, a story of hard work, perseverance, and teaching that can serve as an inspiration and an example to all coaches for this coming season, especially to the younger ones.
In our very competitive culture coaches are recognized and rewarded for winning. Those with losing records are looked down upon and often criticized. In the quest to accumulate W's and win championships we forget what coaching is really about at the amateur level.
Donnie Saunders, the head basketball coach of South Gallia High School, is a recognized winner over a long career. He has taken his teams deep into sectional and district tournaments. But last year was probably his best coaching performance of all. I had an inside look since my son was on the team and I accompanied him to the practices.
After the 2007 football team lost its last four games, a losing mentality carried over into basketball. The players were athletic with great potential, but predisposed to losing. A solid work ethic was missing. The attitude was poor. The team lacked cohesive teamwork, intensity, poise, and confidence.....seeming to be set on finding a way to lose. They were only going through the motions and beating themselves with turnovers. The team was blown out game after game and the losses piled up. They did not play as a team. Quickly, their record became 0–8. Morale was low and discipline sometimes was lacking. They were resigned to losing and some even joked about it.
The losing tore the coach apart. Saunders tried everything to turn it around. He juggled lineups, even putting in inexperienced players in hopes of finding a spark. Coach Saunders alternated between being a teacher, father, and shrink. Yet he patiently kept his cool. He pointed out mistakes and taught the boys how to improve their play. Throughout the ordeal he believed in his boys even though they did not believe in themselves. In his personal life he kept the Faith, occasionally sharing his philosophy of life in teaching them how to live ethically in a competitive world.
In order to turn it around, Donnie Saunders had to teach his kids how to win and motivate them to give their very best and reach their potential. He had to replace all of the negative baggage with positive values so important to success in life.....character, a work ethic, a belief in themselves, unselfish teamwork, intensity, etc. This is what high school and college sports are all about.
In an effort to get them out of the funk, Saunders ordered some Saturday practices and even one on Sunday morning at 6 am so that the boys could still go to church and Sunday School. When his most gifted player missed a couple of practices, the coach had him come for special practices.....coach and player, one on one. Little by little these measures seemed to help. Although South Gallia was still losing and their record worsened to 0-11, they were now competitive. The games were closer.
Meanwhile, the girls' basketball team was having its best season ever with a record of 11–1. They were playing at Meigs, a much larger high school in a higher division. Coach Saunders ordered his boys to to go to Pomeroy to support the girls. The Lady Rebels won in a last minute thriller, as their male counterparts enthusiastically cheered them on. That game may have been a turning point; the girls showed them how to win and then the boys finally did. That so elusive first win came at the next home game six days later on January 11 against Cross Lanes Christian 65-61.
The boys were now more agressive and played with greater intensity; they began to believe in themselves as a more positive mental attitude developed. Victories started to come even against teams that blew them out earlier in the season....Hannan 65-58, New Boston 67-56, Ironton St. Joseph 57-48, a big 53-51 win at Buffalo, one of West Virginia's best teams, ranked #6 (class A) in the state, and 63-50 at Hannan. South Gallia won six of its final nine games of the regular season.
The tournament was effectively a new season. South Gallia was the last seed in a field of 10 teams, but overcame 7th seed Ironton St. Joe 70–66 in overtime. In the Sectional Final, South Gallia was paired with the 2nd seed, Waterford (14-2). The Rebels were ahead 27-17 at the half and had leads through much of the 3rd Quarter before finally losing by five, 46-41 in the closing minutes. Waterford went on to win the District IV Championship and advance to the Sweet 16 of the Regional/State Tournament. Imagine what could have been if South Gallia had been able to get past Waterford!
Excellent coaching really comes out, not with a championship team full of great talent, but in molding character and developing these diamonds in the rough to reach their potential on the court and in life. Donnie Saunders did just that, coming so close to taking his small team to the Ohio U. Convo.
For all of this Coach Saunders deserves to be Coach of the Year. He loves the game and likes to talk about it. He loves to teach and coach. Now begins another season with some starters back and green kids coming up. It will take another great coaching job to make a winner out of them. Saunders believes that good football players usually make good basketball players at the high school level. The football team made the playoffs with one of their best teams ever. We'll see if the basketball team does as well.