As he made his way through the crowd of well-wishers at the 3A State Basketball Tournament on Saturday, Powell High School girls’ basketball coach Scott McKenzie found himself at a loss for words.
“I don’t know if I can speak in complete sentences at the moment,” an emotional McKenzie said. “This is really tough.”
The Lady Panthers had just lost to Buffalo 48-30 to finish fourth at the state tournament in Casper. For the senior-laden team, although it was still a great accomplishment, the finish wasn’t the way the girls had envisioned ending their careers. Nor was it easy for their coach, who announced at the beginning of the season that this campaign would be his last. Knowing this group of seniors would be the heart of his final team made this season a special one.
“That core group since elementary school was these five starters,” McKenzie said of Rachel Bonander, Aubrie Stenerson, Ashtyn Heny and his twin daughters, Katie and Karlie McKenzie.
“We started a little group of them in fourth grade, and they all hung together,” the coach said. “We lost a few girls along the way to attrition, and then we picked up some girls along the way as well.”
After a 30-year stretch that saw him coach just about every sport involving a ball, McKenzie will take over as PHS’s activities director next year. You’ll still find him roaming the courts and the sidelines at Panther games, but hopefully in a less stressful capacity.
“I’m looking forward to working with all the programs and doing whatever I can to help each head coach make their program be what they want it to be,” McKenzie said. “Whenever coaches need someone to talk to, to vent to, I’m looking forward to working with every sport and activity.”
McKenzie is replacing current AD Tim Wormald, who, in turn, is replacing the retiring Jim Kuhn as principal at PHS.
Kuhn said McKenzie was the logical choice for the AD position, given his years at the school as a jack of all trades.
“Mac wears so many hats around here, as dean of students, as test coordinator, as an instructional facilitator and coach,” Kuhn said. “He does the gamut for us; he’s just a great guy to have on staff. He’s always willing to help out anywhere he can. And he’s really good at everything that he does.”
“I’m thankful that we are not losing [McKenzie] altogether,” he said. “I think moving into the role of activities director will be a good fit for him. He brings a lot of experience and knowledge into that position. He’s been around the block enough to know what to expect there, and will bring all of that experience into helping our programs and activities grow.”
After a three-season stint as an assistant women’s basketball coach at Black Hills State, in which he “learned a ton,” McKenzie began his high school coaching career as a student-teacher at Newcastle in 1990. He worked as an assistant with the boys’ basketball team and that season, the Dogies overcame a 20-point deficit in the state championship game to win the title.
“I worked under some incredible coaches in Newcastle,” he said. “That year that I was with them, they had a very special group of senior boys that came back to win the state championship. That got my high school coaching career off to a good start.”
The next 29 years were spent here in Powell, coaching football, volleyball, golf and, of course, basketball. A volunteer assistant under Powell legend Ron Laird, McKenzie was named the ninth grade coach, then moved up to the JV team. He was the head boys’ coach for a stint until the birth of Karlie and Katie, then became a coach at Powell Middle School.
McKenzie eventually became the ninth grade girls’ coach at PHS, then took over the reins of the varsity seven years ago. In that span, he guided the Lady Panthers to seven straight conference championships and seven state tournament appearances — including the team’s only state championship in 2015.
“I’m very proud of that championship, as I am of all the teams I’ve coached,” he said. McKenzie was also the JV coach when the boys’ basketball team won its last title, in 1998, under head coach Laird.
“... I’m proud that I’m on two different banners up there as a coach,” McKenzie said.
Asked what he’ll miss the most about coaching, McKenzie said working with the kids tops the list, followed closely by a surprising choice.
“This is going to sound crazy, but I’ll miss the practices,” he said. “I love the practices — to develop skills, to work on things, no pressure to win that day. I’ll miss that a lot.”
McKenzie said he’ll also miss “the camaraderie of the coaching fraternity.”
“There’s some great coaches in 3A,” he said. “They’ve been a great group to work with over the years.”
Kuhn called McKenzie a “stabilizing force type of coach,” which worked wonders for the teams he’s worked with over the years.
“He [McKenzie] is always able to keep his players calm during games, because they see him over there, taking everything in stride,” Kuhn said. “That’s how he always taught the game: stay the course and cover that middle ground.”
One of McKenzie’s highlights from the past four seasons has been the opportunity to coach Katie and Karlie as they rose through the ranks of Lady Panther basketball. The seniors played their final game last weekend in Casper, and McKenzie said coaching them has been “a wonderful experience.”
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said of the time with his daughters, who were also key members of the PHS volleyball team. “They’ve always been gym rats. They were around a lot of sports growing up, so they didn’t know any different. It was a good path for them.”
When the twins were in middle school, McKenzie said he knew that he would most likely end his coaching career once they finished their senior season.
“The goal was always to be fortunate enough to coach all the way through their career,” he said. “Add the Newcastle year, and that would give me 30 years. That seemed like a good number to end it on.”