Oak Creek Sam McLeod still works at Soroco High School. He still teaches the same classes, still works in the same classroom and he’s still the head coach of the Rams boys basketball team.
McLeod is back teaching at the school and coaching the squad after a one-year hiatus. Much is the same.
And much isn’t.
“I’ve only had a few of these guys before,” McLeod said, surveying his team Wednesday as it closed in on wrapping up the season’s first week of practice. “The ones I did have were freshmen. As far as experience with me, there are only three.”
It’s funny the difference a year can make. When McLeod left the Oak Creek hardwood, he did so with a class of seniors whom locals still talk about, a group led by now-college athletes Cody Miles and Alex Estes. That group forged new ground in recent Soroco basketball history by charging to the regional basketball tournament. They gobbled up the playing time, and now, coaching a team absent any seniors, he’s left with only a handful of experienced starters and few who’ve spent any real time in his system or enjoyed any of the success his previous team helped build.
“Most of these kids don’t know me,” he said. “One year doesn’t seem like long, but it was.”
Return to rebuild
McLeod didn’t want to leave.
He came to Oak Creek seven years ago in search of a job teaching and coaching boys basketball, but the area quickly began to mean more to him than a job.
He took over what was barely even a basketball team and started molding it into a program.
“You never knew who was going to coach, and it was so unorganized,” former Ram Johnny Decosta said about basketball life before McLeod.
Decosta was a junior on McLeod’s first Soroco team, and he remembers a program so weak that coaches had to play during practices just to get 10 bodies on the court. Now he’s helping as an assistant for the first few weeks of the season before returning to college.
“There weren’t as many open gyms. He’s been a lot more involved than anyone was before,” Decosta said. “He’s brought a lot more discipline, and that shows up in practice and on the court.”
McLeod’s first few teams didn’t fare much better on the scoreboard than those before, but his message began to sink in, and the program gained strength, culminating with a winning record, third-place league finish and regional tournament bid in 2010.
Family considerations on the other side of the country tore the head Ram away from his flock after that school year, however.
When those waters calmed, he began plotting his return, looking across the region for a place to teach and coach. A conversation with the Soroco administration paved his way back to doing, well, pretty much exactly what he’d been doing before.
“I was here visiting last spring break, and they called me in as we had a talk about whether we wanted to continue our old relationship,” McLeod said. “I definitely wanted to get back to the area. This has been and always will be home to me.”
McLeod inherits a team that, significantly short on experience a year ago, struggled to a 4-15 record. The first step, he said, is bringing back the discipline Decosta pointed to as a hallmark of the first go-around.
That doesn’t mean strict adherence to any program-defining offense but rather sticking with a philosophy of hard work and one consistent strategy.
“Continuity is the biggest thing,” McLeod said. “We made it to regional tournament and doing things we hadn’t done here before, and that was because of people doing the same way for a period of time.
“It’s about continuity in expectations and behavior. We taught them how to work.”
He said he’s a different coach from the one who showed up in Oak Creek seven seasons ago. Coming from a job coaching a girls team, he’s learned the intricacies of the boys high school game and how to slot different kinds of players into offenses that can help them.
When this year’s team starts it season Dec. 1 at home against North Park, it won’t look much like the one that powered Miles and Estes. They were different players, and that’s fine, McLeod said.
He didn’t come back to build that Soroco basketball team. He came back to build the Soroco basketball program.
— To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com