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Greg Hansen: Aztecs finding their spirit

Beating Cochise has helped revive Pima men's team
2010-01-27T00:00:00Z Greg Hansen: Aztecs finding their spirit Opinion by Greg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 27, 2010 12:00 am  • 

This is what you do when your team scores 104 points and whacks the nation's 16th-ranked team: You get choked up. You want to say something to celebrate the moment but nothing comes out.

"I wasn't able to collect myself," Pima College men's basketball coach Karl Pieroway said. "The kids were jumping around, dancing and singing. It was pretty emotional."

Late Saturday afternoon, when almost no one except a few hundred people in the Aztecs' gym were paying attention, Pima stunned ACCAC powerhouse Cochise College 104-91. And it wasn't a fluke; in the first Pima-Cochise game this season, in November, the perennial national power from Douglas had to scramble to beat Pieroway's team 93-90.

There had been many smaller rewards during Pieroway's first 49 games at PCC, but never a payoff to match Saturday's head-turning victory.

"This league is so brutally difficult that things can go sideways pretty quickly," he said. "But we've come a long way. A very long way."

Pieroway is a 39-year-old math teacher at Wilson Middle School who began a step-by-step, dues-paying coaching odyssey 17 years ago as a volunteer coach at Rincon High School, and later at St. Gregory. He then got his own team, Class 1A Green Fields, from which he jumped to Class 2A Benson. In 2001, he became the first boys basketball coach at Ironwood Ridge High School, which he guided to the 2007 state championship game.

The next logical step, if not the most sensible, was to agree to coach Pima College, which had gone 39-111 over six consecutive losing seasons, and needed not just better players but better everything else: locker room, uniforms and even pre-game meals.

Pieroway took the job anyway. The Aztecs are 11-8 overall, 6-6 in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference. You almost have to blink to believe that Pieroway and his staff could turn the program around so quickly.

"I didn't know how good this league is," he said. "I totally underestimated it."

Pieroway's associate head coach, former UA assistant Jim Rosborough, suspects that the ACCAC is perhaps the most difficult junior college basketball league in America, or close to it. And after 35 years in the business, Rosborough should know.

"There are probably 15 Division I prospects in the league," he said. "Once you understand the caliber of competition, you get a different respect for Karl. We're not out here baby-sitting."

Indeed, 36 hours after Pima beat Cochise, Rosborough greeted the Aztecs for a 6 a.m. workout. Just as the Aztecs had to scrape ice from their windshields on a chilly Monday morning, Pima appears to have survived a decade-long scrape with the ACCAC.

The days of losing 116-77 to Cochise and 118-54 to Arizona Western appear to be over, although tonight's visit to Yuma, against 15-4 AWC, won't be friendly. The Matadors have a 6-foot-11-inch center from Brazil, Andre Almeida, who is precisely the kind of player the Aztecs can't hope to deploy.

As with many ACCAC schools, Arizona Western can lodge its players in dormitories and pay tuition, room and board for out-of-state players. Pima is limited; it can give tuition waivers to Arizonans. It's not a balanced playing field, which makes Pieroway's challenge, and progress, more compelling.

"This is a guard-dominated league, so what we do is get after people, run and press, keep the pressure on and play aggressively," Pieroway said. "We're averaging 92 points a game, tops in the league. That's what we have to do to be successful against the schools with taller players. We're fun to watch."

Pima's last winning conference season, 2001, generated a modest a 19-12 finish. No Aztec team has finished higher than fourth in the ACCAC this decade. If the PCC coaching staff isn't resourceful, if it doesn't outwork the other guys, it is doomed.

So as you might expect, Pieroway, Rosborough and fellow assistants Tim Ingraham and Matt Vargas pieced together a mix-and-match roster that includes 23-year-old Jeremy Harden, a Tucson High School grad who is a former casino blackjack dealer.

Harden is a tough guy, a leader, averaging 13.2 points and 7.3 rebounds and is one of the ACCAC's top players.

There's also displaced Hurricane Katrina victim Warren Baker, averaging 15.3 points per game, who moved to Tucson from Hammond, La., and makes ends meet via a work-study program.

"You look for players everywhere, and I mean everywhere," said Rosborough.

Indeed, Pieroway once had a mass tryout camp in which 140 players attended. It was from that camp that he ultimately landed Harden.

Now, in an Aztec basketball context, they're rolling.

Pieroway grew up in Mayer, a small town outside Prescott. He got the itch to coach from his grandfather, a high school coach in Massachusetts. That itch became a desire when Pieroway would watch Lute Olson's epic Arizona teams of the late 1980s. That's why he enrolled at Arizona, got a master's degree and pursued coaching as a profession.

On Tuesday, after teaching his middle school algebra and geometry classes, Pieroway made the long commute from Oro Valley to Pima's West Campus for a 5 p.m. practice.

"I probably have one free hour a day," he said with a smile. "I'm really starting to like it."

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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