By: Joshua Gerard Gargiulo
PHOENIX - With the departure of long-time head coach, Matt Gordon; and only four-returning sophomores. Phoenix College Men’s Basketball Coach, Duane Eason looks to keep a rich-basketball culture alive.
It goes without saying that Phoenix College’s Basketball culture, and presence in the ACCAC, was felt year-in and year-out under Gordon’s reign. From his hiring in 2004, he turned a sub-par program into a National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) powerhouse. Never failing to make the postseason in his 14-year tenure; winning the title seven times. Most notably, the 2014 National Championship run, which crowned Gordon as the only Arizona Coach to ever do so. The Bears’ new coach recognizes there are big shoes to fill; but also embraces the challenge.
“It is nice to be coming into a school with a deep-rooted culture,” First-year Head Coach, Duane Eason said. “At past schools, I was forced to kind-of bring the identity and show them the ropes. Now, it is about keeping the culture and the winning- alive.”
Duane Eason began his coaching career at a small start-up school, Christ the King Prep, in 2011. His mission was to develop an extra-curricular identity for a high school of just 250 students- at the time. The atypical charter school, part of the Christo Rey Network in New Jersey, only requires students to attend school four days a week; but issues required internships to students for fifth-day fulfillment. In turn, corporate partners directly aid funding for education. As of 2014, only 18 schools like CTK existed; and only one in New Jersey.
In his two and a half year stay at Christ the King, Eason took the charter school from a club team, to a contender in the NJSIAA. He brought in nine, highly-touted freshmen; all ranked in New Jersey for Basketball. Slowly developing an up-rooted culture around six-foot-four wing, Yvens Monfleurry (11.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG) and six-foot guard, Zahir Newell (12.0 PPG, 3.3 APG), before his departure to American History High School in 2014.
American History High School was much of the same story. A club basketball team, at a start-up charter, looking to go public with their brand. Eason was the perfect man to call. With Yvens Monfleurry following his move; he helped propel the charter school into a tournament threat in the NJSIAA. In his second season, alongside now junior, Monfleurry and his leadership. The Bald Eagles finished the season with a 14-15 record; and advanced to the fourth round of the 2015 NJSIAA Tournament, losing to eventual second-place finishers, University. The following season, the Bald Eagles’ record only improved, increasing to 17-11 overall. Eventually losing in the Sectional Semifinals to University.
One spring morning, the call came in from Matt Gordon. He needed “coaching assistance” during the second half of his 2015-16 season. Eason was warmly-welcomed to Gordon’s winning culture; a team that was wrapping up their 4th straight ACCAC Regular Season title. Eason got his first feel of a “winning culture,” as he put it.
After getting his feet wet in the college-circuit, Eason was ready to breed a winner. His short-tenure as an assistant with Gordon, landed him as Head Coach of Mountain Pointe High School’s varsity program. Mountain Pointe, although coming off a sub-par season and the retirement of long-time varsity coach Hosea Graham, the Pride was stacked with talent. With 3rd and 4th leading scorers Khlid Price (9.7 PPG) and Amarion Cash (9.2 PPG) returning; along with improvements from Jalen Graham and Ryan Pate in that following year. The Pride cruised to a 26-4 record; and lined themselves up in the championship game, as a #7 seed against #2 Pinnacle High School, losing 77-60.
Since then, the rest has seemed to fall into place for the seven-year coaching vet. After 14 years, the winningest coach in PC history moves on to better endeavors; and his replacement, a man who has seen a few rodeos. Left with only four returning sophomores to the program: Tre Mitchell, Kenny Sutton, Darius Goudeau and Michael Walcott. Coach Eason has his work cut-out for him; but despite the circumstances, he feels tranquil with his group of guys.
“Really, if you look at the roster, there are really only two guys returning. With Tre being injured and Michael only being situational, 8 of our 10-man rotation are really ‘my guys’,” Eason said. “Which is really good for us… a lot of the guys fit more of my style; so, it was actually a good change.”
Michael Walcott, one of four returners’, only saw 14 games as a redshirt freshman last year. In Eason’s system, he already sees key differences in his participation and the defensive play. He also sees a more collective team than last year; admitting, towards the end of last season, it became more “me-ball.” Everyone seems to get each other this year; but stay competitive during games and practices.
“Off-the-court, we are brothers,” Walcott said.
When asked about the emphasis on defense and conditioning, Walcott shared enthusiastically; also commenting on the improved role.
“We are full-court; and pressing teams all game. We are more in-shape, a lot tougher, a lot stronger… With Gordon, he wanted me to be a ‘straight-shooter’, where Eason wants me to ‘drive, play defense, use my size’, there is a lot more freedom.” Walcott said.
Michael attributed the Bears’ high-octane defense, to their blow-out win over nationally-recognized Hillcrest Prep, during a scrimmage in early October.
Two key players in last year’s rotation, Darius Goudeau and Tre Mitchell, saw their seasons plagued by injuries; but have found their grooves in Eason’s “East Coast Style” of Basketball.
After an ACL tear in the 5th game of his freshman campaign, Mitchell was forced to sit out all of last year; fortunately receiving a medical redshirt for the season. The severity of an ACL tear is well-known, but the up-side in the 6’3 guard does not diminish in a single-season. As a senior at La Joya Community High School, Tre averaged 19.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.8 APG and 3.2 SPG. He is an all-around player who was severely missed in Gordon’s “shot-heavy” offense, last year. Prior to Gordon’s departure, Mitchell was touted as the next great Bear, in a long-line of recent PC guards for coach Gordon; but with coach Eason’s arrival, Mitchell has seen his (and others) roles, move to a team-oriented style of play. One, he is not discontent with either.
“I feel like, this year, anybody can have 20 points this game; 20, the next. Somebody 10 assists this game; different person might have 10 assists the next game. I feel like it is not just based off one-person this year. I feel like everyone is equally distributing.” Mitchell said.
Goudeau, who averaged 8.6 PPG and 4.9 APG in just 21 games, is already having feelings of similarity between Eason and his 2016 coach at Mesa High School. Goudeau and the Jackrabbits capped that season with a 27-4 record, finishing ranked #2 in the state and state champions.
“My high school coach was from Michigan. That’s kind of, like, the East Side. And that’s where coach Eason is from… so, you can see the style,” Goudeau said. “And when I first got here, I had to almost change my entire style cause how different Gordon was. Now, I got this coach; and he is super similar to my high school coach. So I am going back to my old ways; but also have habits from Gordon. That I need to, kind of, break; because it is just different coaching styles.”
Darius continued on, mentioning how “team-oriented” the Bears’ feel this season. There are no special players on the team; but everyone is aware of their role, and how to contribute to the team. He also touched on both coaches’ impact on his game. Coach Gordon showed Darius “how” to be a good player. He feels coach Eason took it a step further, showing him he “can” be a good player; and that he “is” a quality athlete.
Sophomore point guard, Kenny Sutton is optimistic this change will shed light on a new aspect of his game, being a “Floor General.” Sutton, an active player in both Gordon and Eason’s schemes, showed flashes of first-team talent last year. 4th in APG; and 3rd in PPG, Sutton has solidified his spot in Eason’s offense; embracing both the coach, and his style of play.
“The way he wants to play is more, ‘my game’, and that allows me to showcase my talent. And that makes my teammates better,” Sutton said.
Despite the Bears’ last seven, regular season ending with clinching the title. The Bears’ have had trouble recently closing out, in the finals minutes of their recent tournament games.
“I just feel a lot of people haven’t been in that position of ‘winning’. So when they get there, they don’t know to just ‘keep doing what you’ve been doing’,” Mitchell said.
Eason’s style is centered on fundamentals, defense and conditioning. His “championship-or-bust” mentality keeps a program, who hasn’t missed the post-season since 2004, in high contention regardless of shift-in-power.
“The goal is to keep the program where it has been: Top 25 in the Country, at the top of the conference and challenging for a National title,” Eason said. “Uniquely, I’ve been saying ‘we’re going to win the region and go to nationals’. Cause last year, at Mountain Pointe, I kept saying ‘we would be good enough to make a run at the championship’. I feel like that message was kind-of spoken into existence… even though we lost, our goal was ‘we are good enough to get to the championship’. Versus this year, ‘we got to win the region’.”
The optimistic mentality has been picked up by near, all of the players. They not only feel they are a talented bunch; but that they can advance further than Bears’ teams in recent past. All four sophomores also agree that this team is like a brotherhood.
“It goes deeper than basketball. Yeah, we are competitive on the court; but off-the-court, we are brothers. We hang out with each other. We all think each other are funny,” Walcott said.
Pre-season polls have the Bears’ ranked 9th in the NJCAA. They will see their first action, Friday through Saturday, at the Chaparral Classic in Midland, TX. They return home for a tournament at Phoenix College; but they are “neutral site” games. There first match-up will be against New Mexico Junior College.
Ticket prices TBA.