There was not much Matt Cates had not accomplished during his first 18 seasons as Cherokee's girls basketball coach, but he took it one more step in Year 19.
Cates led the Lady Warriors to a 27-4 record and the program's first state semifinal since 1987.
Cherokee had been close in recent years, with back-to-back appearances in the quarterfinals, and after losing just one senior from the 2017-18 team, Cates said he knew this season could stretch on a little longer.
“We felt like, coming off last year, we had a chance to try to do something special,” Cates said. “The kids had that as a goal. I felt like it was reasonable. You can never expect to get there, but we worked to get there and put ourselves right there.”
The goals may have come at the end of the season, but for Cates, the 2018-19 Cherokee Tribune Girls Basketball Coach of the Year, the preparation started much earlier. In each of the last two seasons, he had loaded his non-region schedule with playoff teams to ensure his players were ready for postseason-level play at the end of the year.
“We scheduled two of the hardest schedules we’ve ever had the last two years, for two of the best teams we’ve ever had,” Cates said. “It prepared us for tough games and playoff basketball. Two of the losses we had were by one point early in the year. We put our kids in the right situations to prepare for the state tournament.”
While that strategy has helped prepare Cates' teams for late-season runs, the sustained success has come from even earlier. He has compiled a 347-195 record at Cherokee, crediting the continuity with getting players involved in the culture early.
“It’s the program,” Cates said. “Our middle school is where most of our kids start. They get our terminology and gets hands-on experience with our coaches. It starts there and carries into high school. It makes it easier when you have the same expectations and ideas. We’re never going to lower expectations. Our personnel may change, but our expectations will be the same.”
That culture comes with high expectations on the court. Cates’ fiery demeanor on the sideline shows that, but he said it is just as important to offer nurturing support to his players away from the court.
“You can coach them hard, but you have to love them on the other side of it and let them know you’re there for them,” Cates said. “In life, they’ll have a lot thrown at them, but, hopefully, we prepared them for that. When things are hard, hopefully they can look at a time when it was hard here and learn from it.”
Cates said he has no plans to step away from the game any time soon, but the culture he has built will face another test next season.
Ashlyn Andrus, Synde Watts, Kate Johnson and Chatham Brown are all set to return with an abundance of playoff experience. Cherokee will only lose three seniors, though Lacie McCoy and Olivia Herrera were each 1,000-point career scorers who played for four region championships and won three.
Still, Cates said expectations will not change. To take the next step to the state championship, the formula will remain the same.
“We have a lot of pieces,” he said. “Trying to replace the leadership of Lacie and Olivia is a big deal. Someone has to step up there. We’ve never had two in one class. It’s a huge feat. You start over, work with what you have and do what works best for the next year.”