Helena’s Lucas McDonald wins Shelby County Coach of the Year after Huskies first Final Four

Published 10:34 am Tuesday, March 19, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Year one for Lucas McDonald at Helena exceeded many people’s expectations with an area title and a trip to sub-regionals, but it was clear that once would not be enough.

The Huskies set out in year two of the McDonald era to not just reclaim their place atop the area, but go further than even his players thought possible.

“Before I got here, I don’t know if they realized they could do it,” McDonald said after Helena’s sub-regionals win over Northridge. “And it’s not me. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with them buying into what we do on a day-to-day basis. I can’t say enough. I’m just so proud of them.”

While McDonald may be the first to give credit to the players, his ability to get his players to buy in, play in his system and help them believe they could achieve more is why he is the Shelby County Coach of the Year.

While the Huskies had to recover from the loss of six seniors from their area title team in 2022-23, they returned a skilled core with a great foundation after a year in McDonald’s system.

Despite their talent on paper, Helena still lacked one thing: a playoff win during the last five seasons. However, they got that and even more.

The Huskies rose beyond even their goal of making it to regionals and went all the way to the school’s first Final Four in 2023-24, claiming an area championship and going toe-to-toe through three quarters with the eventual state champion in the Final Four.

Not bad for a program that hadn’t even been to the Sweet 16 since 2019.

“Nobody expected us to be sitting here in the Final Four at the beginning of the year, I guarantee you,” McDonald said after the Final Four loss to Buckhorn. “This group accomplished so much and shocked a lot of people just to have the opportunity to get here, so I’m proud and couldn’t say enough about the kids and what they’ve done over the last two years and bought in and done what I’ve asked and gave us an opportunity to be here.”

Under McDonald’s leadership, Helena’s players not only succeeded individually but shined as a unit. With more pieces to work with this year, he helped create a system and style that had more dimensions than the team that already won the area in 2022-23.

As a result, the Huskies succeeded all around the court, from long range with Ian Johnigan, down low with Drew Davis and Joseph King, at the top of the key and all around the court with Josh Williams and a stifling defense backing it all up.

And leading the way for them were two of the seniors who had been at the school long before McDonald even crossed the city line into Helena: Williams and Johnigan.

Empowered with McDonald’s system, Williams improved on an already strong junior season to average 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game en route to winning Shelby County Player of the Year and Johnigan was as reliable a player as anyone on the court with 13.5 points per game to join Williams in the 1,000-point club for their careers.

And in the moments when his players were not at their best and needed encouragement and guidance, McDonald was there, using his words to help point his team in the right direction and believe in their talent.

“In the first half, I was jittery,” Williams said of the Elite Eight game against McAdory. “The halftime speech he had, it calmed my nerves. It helped remind me that I could do it if I just could stop feeling sped up and stayed calm.”

Beyond just getting the team to believe, McDonald’s team helped rally the city behind the Huskies.

A passionate student section in the regular season grew as the team progressed into sub-regionals and regionals, culminating in hundreds of Helena fans packing out Legacy Arena in downtown Birmingham in the Final Four.

That support only galvanized the players to play even harder and made everyone involved appreciate the moment even more, something McDonald tried to emphasize with his team.

“Sometimes, you’re in the middle of it and you don’t really understand it–you don’t see it as a young man,” McDonald said after the Final 4 loss. “I had some of those situations when I was young during my career and this week, I was just going to cherish every moment. And we did that. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to in the second half and shot ourselves in the foot, but as far as this group, this group is a very unique and special group and we’ll hold a special place at Helena High School forever.”

While other local coaches like Thompson’s DJ Black and Chelsea’s Nicholas Baumbaugh had cases for this award, that special place, that history and that legacy at Helena is why McDonald rose above the rest and earned the Shelby County Coach of the Year.