It's a hard job, but we decided it had to be done:
Take every varsity high school coach who's flexed their knowledge, experience, acumen, management and especially psychology abilities at one time (or more) since August. Stir them all into one large bowl, and use a colander to sift through and leave behind a magnificent seven.
A field of hundreds has been whittled into seven finalists for our Varsity Xtra coach of the year, a transcendent group of men and women whose programs succeeded on and off the field. Some had expectations, most were unexpected rises to riches, but all of them - whether listed here or not - do this for reasons way beyond financial or personal glory.
They've succeeded and taken others with them down rewarding roads during the 2009-10 school year, but come next week, only one will win.
Tyler Dumas: Dobson girls basketball
Proof that neighborhood kids can still win today. Dobson finished fourth in the Central Region thanks to four losses against Gilbert and three more against Highland, but the Mustangs won their first 5A-I playoff game in Dumas' five years - and never stopped. They beat Mountain Pointe, Tucson and a dangerous, pressure-happy Chandler squad in the semifinals. In an overtime thriller, Dobson got a couple late gifts from guard Andrea Jones and handled St. Mary's pressure well enough to win the school's first state championship in a 61-59 overtime thriller. A 6-foot-4 Kameron Knutson to go with guards Johnelle Hannah and Jones made life easier, but Dumas and his staff had the Mustangs as ready for the Knights' press as possible with little preparation time.
Bob Fredericks: Scottsdale Christian boys basketball
A 28-1 record and the 2A state title is reason enough for Fredericks to make this list. But the way he kept the Eagles afloat during the absence of star Hayden Johnson for three weeks makes him even more deserving. Johnson, a 6-foot-7 senior forward, was sidelined with a partially collapsed lung in early January. The Eagles didn't skip a beat, winning all nine games he missed and then picked up where they left off upon his return to capture the state title. It is Fredericks' fifth school.
Teresa Hodge: Corona del Sol boys cross country
The Aztecs ran surprisingly well at the state meet, finishing in second place in 5A-I behind champion Phoenix Alhambra. Corona del Sol finished higher than Mountain View and Desert Vista, among others. The Aztecs had three runners in the top 10, led by Garrett Baker-Slama's third-place run. The second-place finish was the cross country team's best since winning the 5A title in 1992.
Kelley Moore: Mesa football
During offseason workouts, the Jackrabbits' third-year coach convinced his team that it was good enough to make a run at the state title. With a roster lacking in elite talent, Moore was given some odd glances by people who heard of his high expectations. But Mesa played well enough early in the regular season to overcome a week of mass player suspensions and some narrow Fiesta Region losses to grab a No. 11 seed for the 5A-I state tournament. After most pundits thought the Jackrabbits would miss the playoffs completely, they knocked off No. 6 Red Mountain, No. 3 Brophy and No. 2 Mountain Pointe in succession - all road games - to make the championship game and inspire a community outreach. The Jackrabbits were blown out by Hamilton, but it was an impressive run.
Scott Smith: Mesquite girls soccer
Cut from the same cloth as his brother, Corona del Sol coach Matt Smith, they both make a solid case for being in this spot after Corona went to the state championship match as a No. 15 seed. But Mesquite won four total matches in 2008-09 before Scott Smith was hired away after years as an assistant under Matt. His work ethic and disciplinary style yielded results, as Mesquite went 14-7-2 in Smith's first season at the helm. The other Smith and Corona got the best of Mesquite, 1-0, in a 5A-I state quarterfinal match that was every bit as close as the final score, but the Wildcats had already proved their point.
Sarah VanCleave: Higley girls golf
The Higley boys team has a history of success dating back to the school's 3A days earlier in the decade, but not the girls. VanCleave helped change that this year. The first-year coach took a group of kids - including a handful who never picked up a club before August - and showed them the ropes in arguably the most difficult sport to consistently succeed in. The Knights took second to eventual 4A-II champion Notre Dame in the regional championship to earn their first state tournament appearance in school history. Led by junior Aubri McKee (fifth place) and senior Mailin Mathiser (seventh place), the Knights again finished in second place behind the Saints.
Norris Vaughan: Mountain Pointe football
Despite having pretty good athletes, the Pride went just 6-14 in the two years before Vaughan arrived from Wickenburg. He brought with him a solid history of success, and the turnaround was quick. Mountain Pointe rattled off an undefeated regular season and didn't lose a game until the 5A-I state semifinals to Mesa. The Pride finished 12-1 this year, a 10-game improvement from 2008, and Vaughan deserves a good deal of credit for the schemes and expectations he brought in from the outset.