Originally Published: July 26, 2018 11:05 p.m.
Former Bears assistant replaces departed Simpson
PRESCOTT VALLEY — The past two seasons were unsettling for the Bradshaw Mountain boys’ basketball team, as the proud program quickly regressed from a state-playoff qualifier in 2016 to a doormat.
Former Bears assistant coach Blair Hillig, 50, replaces Matt Simpson, who resigned in the off-season after three seasons, as Bradshaw Mountain’s new head coach.
Hillig, a assistant coach for the past nine years (2009-18) here who also spent time as the Bears freshman team’s head coach, said from Gary Kunow Gym on Thursday afternoon that one of the keys to turning around the program is making basketball more pleasant.
“It needs to be enjoyable for the kids, it needs to be enjoyable for the coaches,” added Hillig, who was hired toward the end of the 2017-18 school year in early May although the school didn’t make an immediate announcement. “And for that to happen, really, there’s gotta be a good relationship that goes both ways – a good understanding of what’s expected from them [boys].
“I expect them to work really hard, to be honest, and to be good students. But at the same time I’m going to give them all those same things. I wanna work really hard and let them know they’ve got people working for them in order to get better.”
Bradshaw Mountain Athletic Director Tony Miller said Hillig, one of three finalists for the position, “understands the level of commitment, the level of preparation, and what has to go into organizing an entire program.” Yavapai College Athletic Director Brad Clifford, who coached the now defunct Roughriders women’s basketball team, was among the finalists, Miller said.
“He’s really passionate about basketball,” Miller added about Hillig. “We’ve got somebody who’s truly ingrained in the community, and he’s invested at a high level. Having Blair on campus was really important to us.”
WORK IN PROGRESS
From 2015-16 to 2017-18, the Bears compiled a 21-35 overall record under Simpson.
In his first season, Simpson guided Bradshaw Mountain to a 14-6 overall mark and a 7-3 tally in the former Division III, Section IV. Armed with a senior-laden group, the Bears qualified for the state tournament, but they bowed out as the No. 16 seed in the first round at home, losing to No. 17 Cortez, 62-55.
In 2016-17, not much was expected of the Bears after they had graduated so much veteran experience and talent. They went 5-13 overall and 5-7 in the reconstituted 4A Grand Canyon region.
However, this past season of 2017-18, Bradshaw Mountain didn’t click despite having another senior-dominated group, finishing 2-16 and 1-11.
Hillig, who played high school basketball and baseball near Peoria, Illinois, in the mid-1980s, may have an uphill climb this winter, but he’ll have help from an experienced staff. Former longtime Bradshaw Mountain coach Larry Haese will assist Hillig alongside Billy Lamb and Kai Bennett.
“I’m really excited about that,” said Hillig, a former seven-year varsity baseball coach at Tucson Mountain View, of his staff.
Haese said Hillig “will do a tremendous job” and that he “cares about the kids” and is “doing it for the right reasons.” He added that Hillig brings structure and organization to the program.
“My role is simply to be supportive of Blair and the things that he wants to do,” said Haese, who, among other stints, was Bradshaw’s JV coach for five years and its varsity coach for seven years in the 1990s. “I’ve been around Bradshaw for quite some time, so I’m familiar with the program, familiar with some of the kids and the history and things like that. I just want to help him in any way that I can, whether it’s in practice or games.”
TURN THE PAGE
Last winter, the Bears struggled mightily on the offensive end and relied too much on their defense to force turnovers and score in transition. Not much went right, in fact, and Hillig’s charged with righting the ship.
“We had so many darn seniors, and honestly what I saw was the buy-in wasn’t there,” said Hillig, who’s entering his 13th year teaching math at the high school (28th year teaching overall). “And so when things started to go poorly, there just wasn’t that leadership to pull ’em out and get that turned around.”
In May, Hillig conducted open-gym sessions after school. When the school year ended, the varsity team attended camps two hours a day in June. They then played about 20 games this summer, competing in tournaments at Embry-Riddle, Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, and in Tucson.
After Hillig was hired, Miller said they talked about the program possibly hosting special events, such as 3-on-3 tournaments in the summer and invitational tournaments “to really build up the notoriety of the program,” and players completing community service projects. They also discussed starting an off-season conditioning program.
This summer, Hillig and Bears girls’ basketball coach Rick Haltom played host to a joint basketball camp for boys and girls in third through eighth grades to promote the high school’s teams, and Miller said it went smoothly.
Hillig said his team will play more up-tempo and “put a lot of pressure on the ball” in 2018-19.
“We’re going to press more than we have in the past, because we like to run,” Hillig added. “We have some pretty talented guards, so we’re going to try to push the offense and get more possessions, score more points.”
Bradshaw Mountain’s 2018-19 squad will be paced by two seniors, guard Parker Bennett and 6-foot-2 post David Massis.
“I really look to them for great leadership,” Hillig said. “Those are both just outstanding kids, and good players.”
Senior guard/post Dylan Moser, a JV player last season, “had a really good summer,” Hillig added, “and I was really impressed with him.” Guard Tripp Nestor and post T.J. Stegiel (6-3), two juniors, could start, too.
Last season, the Bears’ freshman team compiled a 17-1 overall record, and at least three of the players on that squad should be promoted to varsity and play significant minutes, Hillig said.
“It’s looking up,” Hillig added. “I really hope that this year will be successful with the few seniors we have. We have a lot of younger talent, for sure.”
Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.