On March 13, the Zachary High boys basketball team accomplished what no other team since 1966 has accomplished.
Not only did the team reach the championship, which the 1966 Broncos did in 2A, they pulled out a 63-57 victory over Natchitoches Central to win the 5A State Championship at Burton Coliseum on March 13.
In impressive fashion, the 3-seed Broncos defeated the top-seed Natchitoches Central, who came into the game with a 27-1 record.
The journey did not start in the opening round of the 5A playoffs, the sadistic regular season schedule put together by coach Jon McClinton layered with defending or eventual state champions in other classifications, the opening regular season game when the Broncos defeated Holy Cross (72-42), the Oct. 12 first day of practice or the summer when the team was put through grueling workouts to prepare for a challenging season. These were all critical components of the achievement, but an argument could be made that some of that success goes further back to 2015, when the Broncos hired McClinton as head basketball coach.
A little background on McClinton is required. McClinton started his ZHS career as an assistant basketball coach and defensive coordinator for the ninth-grade football team. After four years as an assistant under Bakari Beckwith, Brian Hargroder and Kenny Almond he became head coach in 2015. He took over a program that saw the previous head coach resign a week before the season began. He looked across the room at a group of seniors that had previously heard three farewell speeches from former head coaches. It was not exactly the easiest situation to start your career. McClinton notes that the best lesson he learned from another coach was to “always stick to your philosophy. Never bend for anyone and stay true to who you are.”
What better bullet point on McClinton’s coaching philosophy than how he recognizes player effort? Each week McClinton and his staff identify the “Grinder of the Week”. The Grinder gets points for deflections, steals, taking charges, rebounds and diving on the floor. “Those statistical categories are hustle plays that determine the outcome of games,” McClinton explained. McClinton indicated that he got the idea watching an LSU-Alabama game where the Alabama coach has a “hard hat” award to similarly recognize tough play.
McClinton’s first year (2015-2016) the Broncos would post a 19-12 record. The 2016-2017 season would see them improve to 23-11. The next two seasons the team failed to break the 500 mark, finishing 12-21 and 15-17. “Our goal was always to win a championship; however, I knew we needed a few more pieces to accomplish the goal,” McClinton said. Last year the Broncos finished 26-10 and advanced to the quarterfinal before falling to eventual 5A runner-up Bonnabel.
On the 2020-201 Broncos, McClinton noted that before the season he and his staff knew the group was talented but “basketball season is very long and daunting as it covers holidays, school closures and distractions everywhere. The staff’s question was, would we handle the grind?” McClinton said.
The regular season featured one of the toughest ZHS boys basketball schedules ever with 10 teams participating in Marsh Madness. There were some games they would like to have back. The EBR championship game against Scotlandville (46-48) and a home loss to Madison Prep (46-51), two teams that would both advance to the championship in their divisions, stung. The Broncos persevered.
“The postgame talk and the practice after the Scotlandville game I expected our players to hang on the loss and have a poor practice. Instead, it was one of the best practices we had all year, showing our staff how mentally tough our team was and how well we can handle adversity,” McClinton explained.
Tragedy struck two days before the playoffs, when one of the players experienced a family loss. “Our players dedicated the playoffs to that player’s family members,” McClinton indicated. In response, the Broncos cruised through the 2020-2021 playoffs with home victories over Comeaux (69-54), East St. John (55-44) and Northshore (66-39) in the quarterfinals. In reflecting on each of the playoff games McClinton mentioned defense as the critical catalyst for Broncos victories.
The trip to Lake Charles did not slow them down as they defeated 4-5A rival Walker (58-44) in the semifinals.
The Broncos never trailed in the 5A Championship game against a team whose only previous loss was to defending 5A champion ASH. “We mixed our defensive pressure, but for the most part we battled in the paint and got out and ran the floor,” McClinton noted.
A fourth quarter scare in which Natchitoches Central went on an 11-1 run and the Broncos did not make a field goal for six minutes cut the lead to 4, but senior Jordan Decuir and junior Jalen Bolden scored on the next three possessions to seal the victory. “When talent and toughness meet, championships are won, and that is what we believe happened this year” McClinton said.
Sophomore Brandon Rodgers-Hardy was named the MVP and contributed 22 points including 10 in the first quarter.
McClinton was quick to recognize and thank “the best staff in the state.” “Ron Lewis has been with the me the longest and usually reasons with players to bridge the gap when there was confusion or frustration,” McClinton said. McClinton also notes that Lewis inserted the offensive concepts and took weight room responsibilities. McClinton refers to assistant Morris Wright as “Mr. Zachary” because he loves the community with all his heart. Wright assisted with player development and led the freshman team to a 14-3 record last year. Assistant Dimario Jackson is a recent addition to the program who was also responsible for player development, coached the junior varsity team to a 13-2 record, oversaw scouting report and helped with offensive sets.
The Broncos will say goodbye to seniors Kyree Davis, Jeremiah Fisher, Connery Jackson and Elihah Hill. McClinton referred to Davis as the Broncos “floor general” that did an awesome job on defense in the state championship. Fisher was voted captain and McClinton notes that “he hit many big shots for us this year.” “Mr. Defense” would be Jackson who was routinely tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player, which he dutifully did as he has what McClinton describes as “the heart of a lion.”. McClinton refers to Hayes as the rock of the team due to his communication skills, as he was often looked to for guidance. On the court Hayes is a great ball handler and rebounder. Hill joined the basketball team late after football season, but McClinton notes that he “gave everything to this team” as he fought through injuries the entire season but was still able to bring physicality to the team.
Though the Broncos will lose several contributors to graduation, they will return key components of the 2020-2021 team including Bolden, Rodgers-Hardy and junior Michael Quiet. “We need to replace some toughness as many of the senior were the toughest ones on the team,” McClinton noted. Already pointing to next year, McClinton stressed that ZHS basketball will “never becoming complacent or settle for average.”