Commentary: Hiring middle school coaches a worthwhile gamble for high school squads

Matt Hollinshead, mhollinshead@daily-times.com
Navajo Prep coach Matt Melvin talks to his team during a timeout against Zuni on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, at the Eagles Nest in Farmington.

FARMINGTON — Finding that next promising, battle-tested coach can either ensure prolonged success or change a struggling program’s fortunes.

New Mexico’s sports teams with coaching vacancies would be wise to consider handing the keys over to a middle school coach.

Like a high school coach, a middle school coach conveys their vision for a program to the players and the athletic director, and they handle the daily grind. 

They’re tasked with assembling and managing team personnel, scheduling practices and games, and also building and maintaining player motivation. Additionally, they have the final say on pre-game and in-game decisions, whether things go their way or not.

Navajo Prep's boys basketball team gave Matt Melvin a shot after he turned the Heights Middle School boys into a San Juan Basin League contender, earning the top seed at the league tournament during the 2018-2019 season.

With Heights and Prep just 5 1/2 miles apart, the community tie was present. And Melvin’s a bright defensive mind, emphasizing double-team baseline traps.

That led to a 20-win campaign, Prep’s first district regular-season title in four years and a district tournament title. And they endured a tougher non-district schedule, playing its first six weeks of basketball entirely away from the Eagles Nest.

The program had high expectations entering the 2019-2020 season to begin with, and Melvin’s first year is just the start of what's to come.

Once the Eagles can bust through the opening round of state under Melvin, watch out.

Ryan Dee is entering a far different situation taking over as Aztec’s boys basketball coach.

Dee looks to turn around a team that’s won just 70 total games since the 2011-2012 season, but he did plenty at Tsé Bit A'í Middle School in Shiprock to signal hope for the Tigers.

Dee went 66-34 in six years of leading the Tsé Bit A'í boys, winning two SJB League titles. He also went 16-1 with a league title in his sole season coaching the Tsé Bit A'í girls.

The one time the Tigers tasted true success in boys basketball was the state runner-up campaign in 2000.

Aztec’s last playoff appearance came on March 5, 2011, falling 72-44 at Roswell. 

With all due respect, Aztec’s not a basketball school. Football, wrestling and softball are the marquee sports.

This is Dee’s chance to make Aztec relevant in boys basketball.

Melvin and Dee share one thing in common: they’re entering their respective tenures as first-time high school coaches with the necessary experience of running the show.

While it may ideal to land the proven, successful coach (i.e., Hobbs girls basketball hiring Joe Carpenter in 2016, Farmington girls basketball hiring Larenson Henderson as coach back in 2018), a middle school coach could very well become that next gem of a hire.

Melvin’s proving his worth, and Dee can prove his worth, too.

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and on Twitter at @MattH_717.