Over a period of five years, Wilsonville High School girls basketball coach Justin Duke has helped transform a program that was middle-of-the-pack when he took the job to one of the best in the 5A classification.
The precipitous rise culminated this year with a victory over powerhouse La Salle, a co-Northwest Oregon Conference title, and an appearance in the semifinals of the state tournament.
And Duke was awarded a prestigious honor for his efforts. Earlier this month, the Oregon School Activities Association announced him as the 5A Coach of the Year.
"I was a little surprised. It's always nice to be recognized, and I don't want to take anything away from the award because I'm proud of the work we've done. I wished they called it the 'coaching staff of the year' award because whoever wins that award has great assistant coaches, and I know we have a great staff here," Duke said. "It's certainly not lost on me that reaping the reward, it's not just the hard work we've done at the high school level. It's the result of so many people who have worked with the kids over the years in youth basketball, soccer."
The Wildcats missed the playoffs and finished with a losing record the year before Duke took over. Since then, they have made the playoffs every year and have consistently improved record-wise.
The last two seasons were especially major breakthroughs. Wilsonville placed third in state in 2018-19 and finished the season with a 23-6 record.
In 2019-20 the Wildcats boasted a 24-3 record, including a 13-1 mark in league play, and earned a spot in the eight-team state tournament. Duke will always remember the come-from-behind victory over La Salle, a team the Wildcats struggled to compete with in the first few years of his tenure and lost to in the 2019 semifinals.
"It was the most people I've seen in a gym for a girls basketball game in the five years I've been there," Duke said. "The reactions from youth players, (players signing) autographs and taking pictures with the kids. We influenced a lot of youth players that night. They have some pretty good role models at the high school program to look up to. A night like that probably pays dividends for the high school program years from now."
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the season was canceled before their semifinals game against La Salle due to concerns about COVID-19. Regardless, Duke hopes players will think fondly of their time together.
"When they think back on the season five to 10 years from now, I don't think the first thing they will remember is that they didn't get a chance to win a state championship, but the journey along the way and other achievements this year or previous years," he said.
As for his coaching philosophy, Duke said he gives players the freedom to create their own success including letting them develop leadership skills through player-led meetings and allowing them a chance to voice their perspective on strategies and playing style.
"Giving more control of the program to the kids themselves influences them in ways that result in success," Duke said. "I think we've developed a lot of leadership in the program and that continues to improve year over year."
Emilia Bishop, a rising senior, said via text message that Duke is the reason she stuck with basketball. Now, she's an all-state player and has fielded collegiate offers.
"I went through some experiences with past coaches and struggled with confidence when I play. But he has allowed me to grow in every aspect of the game," she said. "I honestly don't think the team and myself would have the same success that we have had without him. He has helped to create a new culture for Wilsonville girls basketball. I'm so blessed to get to play for him."
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