Salpointe Catholic’s boys basketball team finished the 2016-17 season with a trip to the Class 4A state championship game. The team then graduated seven athletes — a few of whom were key players for the Lancers — and hired a new coach.
The Lancers have started the season 1-7, and the region portion of their season begins next week. Still, no one’s worried about the early struggles.
“We don’t really talk about wins and losses; we talk about improvement,” Salpointe athletic director Phil Gruensfelder said.
The Lancers are starting over in many ways, beginning with their coach. Jim Reynolds, 62, was hired in April to replace Brian Holstrom. Gruensfelder said he received numerous calls from parents and school and community members suggesting Reynolds, whose son, Ryan, is the UA men’s basketball team’s director of operations.
“I kind of was almost embarrassed by how many called in a way, because I want to say ‘I got his because they looked at my resume and they think I can do this,’” Reynolds said.
Reynolds coached 25 years at Madeira High School in Cincinnati, but then the school dropped all of their physical education programs and the retirement system changed drastically.
Veteran teachers were warned that if they didn’t retire by 2015, they’d lose 11 percent of their retirement income. Reynolds listened, retiring in 2013 as a teacher. He continued to work part-time and coached Madeira.
Reynolds and his wife moved to Tucson two years ago to be closer to Ryan, one of Sean Miller’s closest aides.
“It was an adventure,” Reynolds said of the move. “I didn’t really know about the coaching. I would say in hindsight (that) I wasn’t ready to stop coaching, but I wasn’t going to coach only at a school that I had coached at for 25 years.”
Reynolds volunteered with Pusch Ridge Christian’s boys basketball team shortly after moving to the Old Pueblo. He was a free agent of sorts last year. When he was hired at Salpointe, Reynolds said he felt a bit like a newcomer.
He coached at his previous school for 25 years, and was a teacher for even longer.
“I had to go back and think about, ‘what can I remember and what did I learn from taking over a program the last time I took it over?’” Reynolds. “
I’m not sure I’ve remembered everything. Some things have come to fruition, but I’d say the program at Madeira was further behind than this program. This program was in a state tournament last year and has a good pedigree.”
Gruensfelder said he’s happy to have Reynolds at the helm of the program, even with its early struggles.
“He’s teaching our students the Jim Reynolds way of basketball, which is different from the Brian Holstrom way,” Gruensfelder said. “Brian did an incredible job for us, but it’s different.”
A COACHING LEGEND
Reynolds’ name comes with words like “coaching legend,” but the Ohio native doesn’t see it that way.
Madeira had endured four straight losing seasons when Reynolds took over the program. The team struggled in Reynolds’ first two years, then finished with 22 consecutive wining seasons. Reynolds’ teams won their conference 11 out of 25 years, claimed the district title a few times and made a final four appearance at the state tournament.
“I would say the one thing that I was most proud of is that our team was always looked at as good as we could be with what we had,” Reynolds said.
And yet Reynolds, who was inducted into the Madeira High School Hall of Fame in 2015, still doesn’t think of the word legend when looking back on his career.
“Longevity allows you to be a legend,” he said.
Now, Reynolds is working on building Salpointe back to last year’s success.
“He’s very patient,” Gruensfelder said.
“The way he teaches the game and the experience that he has is just a benefit to our student-athletes. We’re happy to have him.”
There’s at least one reason to believe that the Lancers’ best basketball is ahead of them.
Majok Deng, one of the West’s top college prospects and Salpointe’s best player, is returning from an injury sustained during a Thanksgiving tournament.
The 6-foot-5-inch junior is averaging 18.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.5 blocks per game.
Deng holds scholarship offers from Arizona, UCLA, Cal and Vanderbilt. Duke and Notre Dame have recently started contacting Deng but have yet to make official offers, he said.
Deng says he isn’t really focused on any offers at the moment. He just wants to play.
“That doesn’t really show the player I am in high school,” Deng said.
“I really need to enjoy my high school career and not really focus on the offers.
“If you’re performing, that’s going to come. If you’re not, that could easily be gone in an instant.”
Deng said he’s excited to learn from his new coach. And Reynolds, well, is ready to coach him. Reynolds praised Deng’s 3-point shooting, but said the junior can do a lot more than that.
“He’s a willing participant,” Reynolds said. “He’s a neat guy to work with. Right now we’re just working on solidifying our relationship.”
‘OPEN UP EVERYTHING’
Reynolds and Salpointe are enduring ups and downs.
Take Friday — the Lancers fouled a Sierra Vista Buena player as he attempted a half-point show in the final seconds of a tie game. Dominic Mooney Jr. hit the heave, and the ensuing free throw, to give the visiting Colts a 59-55 win.
Deng was double-teamed under the basket for most of the game, but still managed to shine. Deng scored 22 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and added one block and one steal.
His basket in the paint pulled Salpointe and Buena even with two minutes left. Deng was fouled on the play, then hit a free throw to give the Lancers a 53-52 lead.
The Colts responded with a layup drive to regain the lead and, after the Lancers lost possession due to a traveling call, Buena’s Kino Bellinger hit one of two free throws to give make it a two-point game.
Salpointe’s Julien Whetton scored from the post to tie the game once again — this time with only 2.8 seconds remaining — but Mooney hit the half-court shot and the free-throw attempt with 1.5 seconds left, to seal a 59-55 Colts win.
The Lancers start region play Thursday, when they travel to play Nogales. Salpointe last saw the Apaches during a Thanksgiving week tournament, when it lost 53-42.
“It’s like a new season starts next week with the region (play),” Gruensfelder said.
The Lancers will add Mountain View transfer Evan Nelson to the roster following the Nogales game. The 6-foot-2-inch guard has been playing with Deng since the fifth grade. Because of that, Deng said the two really understand each other.
“That’s really going to open up everything for everybody,” Deng said. “(Having Nelson is) going to really determine where we’ll be going into the rest of conference play.”