When Stephen Turner took over the reins as boys’ head basketball coach at Gonzaga College High School 16 years ago, after serving as an assistant under legendary Coach Dick Myers for five years, there was some skepticism as to whether he could continue its strong tradition in the sport.
It wasn’t like he was taking over a program that was without success or tradition in the DMV area. Gonzaga, located at 19 I Street Northwest, D.C, had its share of success under Myers; thus, there was pressure to continue that long-standing, 29-year tradition.
After an admitted, short transitional period, Turner has continued Gonzaga’s basketball success and taken it to even greater heights. His accomplishments over that period are far too many to list, however here are some of the more notable ones:
- Five WCAC Coach of the Year honors
- 2015-16 first-ever National Gatorade Coach of the Year
- No. 1 team in the country (2007-08).
- Numerous former players who have received national honors and have gone on to have outstanding collegiate careers:
- One such notable player is former Eagle, Kris Jenkins, who made one of the most dramatic shots in NCAA history when he hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer to lift his team, Villanova, to a national title in 2016 NCAA National Championship
“Everyone has some of those days,” said Terrence Williams, referring to things not going well. Williams is now a sophomore player at the University Michigan, who benefitted from Turner’s tutelage.
“When I had one of those days, Coach Turner kept me going. He helped us understand the importance of keeping it going on the basketball court, in the classroom and in your personal life. That experience has helped prepare me for Division 1 basketball and my life.”
Tyler Thornton, who was part of the transitional period in 2006 for Turner, weighed in on what the coach has meant to his life and career.
“The thing that I recall most about my experience at Gonzaga under Coach Turner was his ability to teach lessons from basketball in all areas of your life,” Thornton said. “It has gone a long way with me.”
After graduating from Gonzaga, Thornton went on to have an outstanding career at Duke University. He is following the footsteps of his mentor and is currently an assistant on the men’s basketball coaching staff at Howard University.
“When I took over, there was still talent left over from the previous team,” Turner recalled. “We still experienced success, but things had to be re-evaluated. Coach Myers was an offensive genius whereas I am a strong proponent of defense. We had to find a way to make it all work. It was not difficult; once we established that, the transition became smooth.”
During that period, Turner built the program, not just into a local, but national power. Gonzaga is a member of the Washington Catholic Athletic Association (WCAC), arguably the best basketball league in the country, with some of the top programs in the nation. The names DeMatha, St. John’s, Good Counsel, Bishop McNamara and most recently Paul VI and Bishop O’Connell attract recruiters from across the country to recruit out of the talent-rich league.
“The Gonzaga reputation speaks for itself in terms of prominent alums and their contributions globally,” said Turner. “So, what we were able to do was to ensure that we maintain that and establish our brand as a top-flight basketball program.”
But basketball wasn’t Turner’s only priority. He openly admits that he had to be mindful of the academic requirement and how to make that work by building a successful basketball program.
That delicate balance has proven to be successful. Talented recruits generally come out of the school and, finding success, both on and off the court.
Gonzaga vs. Paul VI
One of the advantages of playing the WCAC is a national schedule. Perennially, the top schools benefit by playing each other and because of their success, they are invited to national tournaments or to play against nationally ranked teams.
A perfect example was the Jan. 27, much-awaited showdown between the Eagles and Paul VI, ranked No. 1 in the nation and the DMV area. Gonzaga was ranked 11th in the country going into the game.
The game, which took place in Gonzaga’s (18-3, 5-2 WCAC) gym, was sold out long before the game. The energy in the air was classic WCAC. Fans, students and basketball enthusiasts alike packed into the gym for the anticipated matchup.
The game started out intense. The two powers battled back-and-forth, but it was the play of Paul VI’s senior guard Deshawn Harris-Smith that proved to be the difference, scoring 10 of his team’s points as they held an 18-13 advantage.
Using its depth, length and talent, Paul VI (20-1, 8-0 WCAC) extended its lead to 34-18 at the half. Harris-Smith, who has committed to the University of Maryland, is the only senior on this talent-laden team and showed why he is regarded as one of the top players in the country, proving to be almost unstoppable.
The Eagles added to the cause by getting into early foul trouble against their talented opponents and scored only five points during the second stanza.
With juniors Ben Hammond and Darren Harris joining Harris-Smith, Paul VI maintained its 16-point advantage, 52-36, at the end of three quarters.
Then, Hammond started off the fourth quarter with a long three-pointer and things appeared bleak for the hosts. But this Gonzaga team, which takes on the personality of its leader, fought its way back with an 11-0 run over a six-minute stretch that cut the deficit to a workable seven-point margin, 62-55, with a little over two minutes remaining.
Much of the comeback can be attributed to sophomore guards Nykolas Lewis and Derek Dixon, who combined for 15 of the Eagles’ 19 points during that stretch. Gonzaga would go on to have two possessions to make it close, but failed to convert on both attempts.
Then, the talented and more experienced Panthers team, which has played an impressive national schedule, showed their moxie and turned to Harris-Smith and Hammond to close out the game and secure the victory.
Despite the 70-57 loss, Turner says that there are lessons to be learned from the experience.
“Paul VI is a very good basketball team. Give them credit, it is the reason they are ranked No. 1. We try to stress the important things that we practice and prepare each day to get better, to learn from each experience.”
The Gonzaga coach added that for WCAC, true winners are cemented at the tournament championship (next month).
“You can go 18-0 in the WCAC during the regular season, but what matters most is who wins the tournament.”
Even with all the gaudy accolades and accomplishments, Turner said coaching his son Jared Turner, now a freshman at Northeastern, has been his most rewarding experience.
“And seeing him now be prepared to play in Division 1 basketball, I get a chance to go watch him and see his growth,” Turner said.
Very informative article.
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