It’s been four years since Dawn McNew took over the Lehigh Senior High boys basketball team.
And much has happened since then, in no small part to McNew.
The Lightning, who last won a District 6A-12 title in 2004, are currently 19-1, recently picking up their first loss on Saturday at the Wally Keller Classic to Sarasota Christian.
But McNew still believes in the Lightning, and the Lightning still believe in McNew.
With three games left in the regular season, including a must-see, non-district game against Class 5A No. 3 Mariner on Saturday, Lehigh, the No. 10-ranked team in Class 6A, could pass the 22 wins and 6A region final berth it achieved in 2014.
“Hopefully we’ll do everything to carry this season as long as we can,” McNew said. “Short term, we want to win districts. Long term, we want to win our last game together. We’ll do everything in our power to see if we can get those two things accomplished.”
Optimism at Lehigh is thriving in no small order to McNew, who brings a half-glass full kind of mentality everywhere she goes.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have come in as a staff and earned the kids’ respect,” McNew said. “That’s what I think you need to do first and foremost. If you want the kids to come in and work hard, you have to come in and work hard and do that yourself.”
Making an impact
McNew has made quite an impression in her four years at Lehigh, and not just because she’s a woman. It’s never been about that.
It started with how she pieced the team together.
“(Coach) treats everyone equally, even from varsity to freshmen,” senior Andre Thomas-Cobb said. “(Coach) doesn’t label it as varsity or freshmen. Everyone gets close.”
In that first year, after McNew kicked seven players off the team, it wasn’t a quick-fix. The Lightning suffered, going 8-16, which was the program’s fourth losing season in five years.
It would be enough for any program, especially one at Lehigh, which won three consecutive district championships from 2002-04 and won 19-games twice in 2007 and 2009, to question where the team was headed.
But McNew, who won a state championship with the Beech Grove High girls basketball team in Indiana in 2003, and who traveled the world in 1991 playing with the USA National softball team, wasn’t deterred.
McNew just kept believing in Lehigh, and Lehigh, in return, began to trust her.
Following summer workouts in the weight room and games on weekends and fall conditioning tests on the track, the Lightning responded with 16 wins in her second year. It improved to 22 wins and a berth in the district championship game and advancement into the regional final.
“It’s been improvement on defense and an improvement on offense,” said senior Alex Debham. “And (coach) is really good at letting us know what our individual games are like and contributing to the team.”
McNew is like any other coach. She isn’t immune to the commonalities of any season, such as when a player gets frustrated by playing time or when a veteran gets angry after being singled out at practice.
“If we do get frustrated, we get frustrated at ourselves because we know we can do better than what we’re doing on the court,” sophomore Jarvis Martin said.
“I know they’ll get frustrated at me,” McNew said. “We had a practice like that last week, and I told them, ‘Look, you’re very unhappy with me now and you’re not liking me right now and that’s fine. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m your coach and one who will do anything in the world for you, but I’m not your friend right now.'”
But it’s more than just the practices and the games that show it. McNew is here for the Lightning when they don’t have the answers elsewhere.
“Like off the court, if one of us don’t have money to eat, or we need a ride,” senior point guard Abed Abu-Khadier said, “(Coach) is there. (Coach) is that person we can go to.”
In four years with Lehigh, McNew has bought shoes for athletes who couldn’t afford them. She’s taken players to the movies and paid for pizzas at Il Primo’s, a place some players say is their third home.
In an area where single-parent homes are not uncommon and financial means are not always guaranteed, McNew has been more than just coach. She’s been a parent. She’s been a mentor. She’s been a friend.
“I know a lot of families in our community don’t have a lot, not that I do, but I’ve always been one that if a kid is in need, we help them out,” McNew said. “If they bust their tails for us, we’ll do the same for them.”
Still, that emotional support has been seen the other way around, too. When McNew’s husband Dean, who sat the bench alongside her for many years and provided hand-in-hand support, died in 2012, the team was there for her, too. Her players call her coach, or coach McNew, but they never call her Dawn and they never refer to her as a ‘woman.’
“We’re all a family,” freshman Berrick Jean Louis said. “We’ve been with each other since the beginning.”
McNew may be the only woman in Southwest Florida coaching high level boys hoops, but she feels she’s no different than anyone else.
She’s brought calm into the locker room, which can be seen during the prayer Jose Altimeaux leads before each game. She’s earned the trust of her players, built not only on the court with the plays she draws up, but for the things she does off the court, too.
She’s earned the respect of her team and Lee County for her basketball mind.
And not because she’s a woman. It’s because she’s a coach, like anyone else.