Helen Cox (Harvey, La.) travels to play Monroe Neville in 2021 Class 4A playoffs 2nd Round

Played at Neville HS, Monroe, La., 3/2/2021. Photo by TOM MORRIS/The Ouachita Citizen. All rights reserved.

A season as eventful as Neville’s 2020-21 campaign should be immortalized through chapters.

There were unbelievable sections like when the Tigers took down local powerhouse Carroll two days before making the short trip to Bossier and walking out of the Bearkats gym with the victory.

“That was honestly surreal,” Phillip Craig recalled. “Getting on the bus, about to crank the bus up, and I’m thinking, ‘Man, we just beat Bossier at Bossier.’ I knew we could do it, but doing it actually surprised me a little bit.”

Then of course there were the chapters that seeded doubt, like when the Tigers lost multiple players in January.

“I had someone ask me the other day if I thought we would go to the Top 28, and everyone worth their salt believes they’ll get there,” Craig said. “But the first time we played Franklin Parish, we had one of our kids go back to Arkansas, and he had worked himself into the starting lineup. And we just lost another young man prior to that week.”

Of all the installments that formed the book of this 2020-21 Neville Tiger run to the state tournament, the Tigers maintained an edge that would ultimately find Craig receive the praise that’s long overdue.

The 2021 Ouachita Citizen Coach of the Year always uses Neville’s football prowess to his advantage on the basketball court, and this year he saw his scrappy Tigers make a run at a state title. Not bad for a football school.

“We use that every year,” Craig said. “I know every coach tries to use some type of motivation to get your team fired up. One of the things we use every year is the football team. Look at what they’ve built. Their tradition and what they’ve established. Everywhere you go, when you say Neville, people say football. It was that way when I came here and it’ll be that way when I leave. It’s not a competition, but it is a motivation for our players to get their own recognition and to establish themselves so when people hear Neville basketball, there’s a certain level of respect.”

Perhaps the most important chapter of this season came in a loss at the end of the year. It could be argued the Tigers’ 55-53 loss to a seven-win Bastrop squad on Feb. 12 was a blessing in disguise. It was the first time all year the Tigers lost to a losing team, as many of Neville’s nine losses came to Top 10 foes like Rayville and West Monroe.

But Bastrop wanted it more than Neville, and the Rams outplayed the Tigers with the postseason nearing. It took Craig some time to get over it, and it was actually the words of his son Brady Craig, who is an underclassman on the team, that helped him get past it.

“Right after that loss, we had that whole next week with the ice, so we had a full week of practice,” Craig said. “I do it with (Brady) a lot, but we were just in the car and talking about that loss. I always bounce stuff off of him to see how he feels and get a sense of how the team feels about certain stuff. I was like, ‘Man, it bothers me we have that Bastrop game that’s looming over our heads.’ It being the last game we played (before the playoffs), it just concerned me. (Brady) looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, one thing you need to do is stop talking about it.’ It just hit me. I was like, ‘OK, that’s what we’re going to do.’”

The lesson was learned. The team knew it couldn’t stroll into the gym and beat any team in the state. It had to be mentally focused to take down the opposition, and that’s what happened in the postseason.

And that shouldn’t surprise Neville fans. If any group was going to respond after the loss, it had to be Neville’s. After all, this is a collective group of scrappers. Junior guard PD McCraney, a First-Team All-Parish selection, has led the team in scoring since he was a freshman, but players like Adrian Cole and Charles Washington were the perfect examples as to why this team flourished in the postseason. They were unselfish guards playing more inside just to help the team.

“The team embraced what we asked them to do, and I think when you go to the Top 28 and face a team like Carver, and see how stacked they are, you start to wonder, ‘How did we make it this far?’ You look at Landry-Walker and the athleticism they had, it was a huge feat for us to do what we had done. But that’s a credit to the kids buying in. This was such a great group,” Craig said.

The Tigers defeated Broadmoor, Helen Cox and Landry-Walker before falling to Carver Collegiate Academy in the semifinals. 

For Neville basketball, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That was the message from day one, and the team bought into that. It had to for Craig to make his third trip (2002, 2012, 2021) to the state tournament. Knowing that, Craig couldn’t accept the coach of the year award without shining a proper spotlight on the players and coaches who helped make this season an unforgettable one.

“I emphasize team to our guys all the time, so this award isn’t about me,” Craig said. “I know being the head coach, that’s part of it. There are awards just for head coaches, but these other guys like Vince Burks, James Lewis and Willie Ward, they deserve this honor too.”

Award-winning sports writer for columns and features since joining the field in 2013. As the first-ever featured columnist of the month at Bleacher Report, Martin cut his teeth with online media before joining the newspaper business in 2014.

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