The 2017-18 high school sports season is only about two months old.
That has been plenty of time to decide the Coach of the Year. Just hand it to Butte High soccer coach Riley McNabb right now.
He deserves it. There’s not even a close second.
It doesn’t matter how the Bulldogs do in the playoffs, the award goes to McNabb.
You notice I did not refer to McNabb as the boys’ or girls’ soccer coach, just the soccer coach. That’s because McNabb is the head coach of both teams.
Think about that for a minute. Think about the stress that is put on the head coach of any high school team.
I know a basketball coach who is about as good of a guy you could possibly know. By the end of his second year coaching a high school boys’ basketball team, he looked like Jack Lemon in Glengarry Glen Ross.
The coach was edgy and stressed out, and he did not look healthy at all. He looked like he had a foot in the grave, and his wife promised to push him all the way in if he took a third year.
This is not because this man was not a good coach. He was. He knows the game and he knows how to lead young men.
The pressures put on our coaches in these modern, out-of-perspective times, though, were just too much.
A year later, and the coach looked 10 years younger (maybe more), and he was running marathons. His wife was happy.
McNabb has two teams to deal with this season. That’s double the practice time. Double the film time. Double the drama. Double the parents.
Yikes, that is a lot of parents.
Now, I have not seen or heard of any incidences involving the Butte High soccer parents this season, but you know there had to be some.
Really, soccer parents invented bad sports parenting, so you would have to expect that McNabb had at least a couple of parental moments while coaching both teams.
There is a reason why former boys’ coach Eric Zahler looks like the happiest guy in town after he stepped down to take an assistant football coaching job at the school in July.
McNabb, who was an assistant for Zahler in the boys’ program, first took over the Butte High girls’ team. He replaced Kevin Petritz, who resigned to take the same job in Great Falls High in January.
With Zahler’s resignation coming at a time when it is impossible to hire a replacement — since most of the time a new coaching job is tied with a teaching position — Butte High athletic director Chuck Merrifield did not exactly have a lot of options.
You would have to be crazy to want to coach a high school team in 2017, and Butte is not known as a soccer town. So the résumés were not exactly flying into the Butte High athletic department office.
Granted, I rolled my eyes when I heard Butte High was turning to McNabb to take both roles. Of course, I did not really know McNabb at the time.
The truth is, McNabb is doing a fantastic job, and you do not have to take my word for it. Listen to Hunter Terry, a Butte boy who has three Class AA state titles as head coach of the Bozeman boys’ team.
“Riley is doing a great job,” says Terry, whose teams won three straight titles from 2012-14. “Hats off to him. Everyone should be thinking him and telling him what a great job he’s doing. His teams are organized. It’s hard enough doing all the work you’ve got to do with one team.
“Kudos to that guy,” Terry adds. “Well done.”
I asked Terry, a 2001 Butte High graduate who coached in Butte six years — three as an assistant and three as a head coach — if he would try coaching the boys and girls. He answered with an emphatic “NO.”
Of course, it probably helps that McNabb was 23 when he started this venture. Maybe he is too young to know that it is an impossible task.
Some high school coaches have pulled that task off in basketball, kind of, leading the boys’ and girls’ teams.
Long-time coach Cary Finberg did it for a little bit in Columbia Falls. That was after the coach won four state titles with the Columbia Falls boys, however.
Handing the job to a 23-year-old man with no experience as a head coach was, well, let’s just call it a gutsy move for the Bulldogs.
That move has clearly paid off. Butte High’s boys, who were hit incredibly hard by graduation following last year’s run to the Class AA state to tournament, completed the regular season with a 4-6-2 record while playing in an incredibly tough Eastern AA.
McNabb’s girls’ team is 1-11, but the team’s record tell the story at all. The team included 11 players who never played soccer before until they stepped onto the field for the Bulldogs in late August.
Last week against Bozeman, a team that sure looks like a state championship squad, the Bulldogs looked like a real soccer team. They did not beat the Hawks, but the Bulldogs competed like a team ready for the playoffs.
Also, McNabb has quickly learned to play the media game. Win or lose, he contacts Butte Sports to report on road games.
We have dealt with veteran coaches who still try to duck the media after a loss. McNabb seeks it out, and that is a good thing. He realizes the importance of pointing out the valor of his team’s effort, even if it is not a winning one.
In my years working as a sportswriter, I have seen a direct correlation between winning coaches and coaches who know how to deal with the media.
Really, some of the great Butte coaches who have been consistent in contacting the media — even after a tough loss — are people like Bob Green, Kelvin Sampson, Arie Grey and Don Peoples.
I would list some names of the coaches who do not handle the media well — particularly after a loss — but I forgot them.
McNabb, a 2012 Butte High graduate, recently earned a degree from Montana Tech. So it will be hard for the Bulldogs to keep him long term at one job, let alone two.
Still, this year under McNabb has been key. Had the coach not stepped into take over programs that were not exactly drawing top candidates, it could have set the programs back for years.
So, Bulldog fans — and Butte soccer fans in general — should be grateful for the job McNabb has done, and it appears that they are.
They would have to agree with Terry when he says Riley McNabb definitely deserves a tip of the cap.
He also deserves the Coach of the Year trophy.