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Leitzke Aims to Keep Monsters Basketball Strong

Maurice Leitzke knows he has work to do to keep the Eastern Arizona College men's basketball team among the elite in the junior college ranks. It's especially challenging when a coach takes over a team with no players. Last season, the Gila Monsters finished a historic year with a 30-6 record and a fifth-place finish at the NJCAA National Tournament. Getting back to that point will likely take some time. "When I was hired, there were zero players here," Leitzke said.

He was also hired late and did not officially begin his duties as head coach until May 22. Already feeling under the gun, Leitzke was on the phone the first day he was hired, making recruiting calls.

After four and a half years playing professional basketball in Australia, Austria, and New Zealand, Leitzke was approached by Jim Middleton about a college position. Middleton was the athletic director at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., at the time. Leitzke, who had thought about coaching, decided to take the position as assistant coach of the men's basketball team in 2002. He learned a lot about coaching at the collegiate level from Darren Archer, who was the head coach at Southwest Baptist. "He was a great coach to work for,"Leitzke said. One of the main things Leitzke learned from Archer was game preparation. he realized how much work a coach has to put in to stay competitive with the other coaches and programs. After two years as asn assistant coach at Southwest Baptist, he took an assistant coaching position at Cameron University, a NCAA Division II schoool in Lawton, OK. There he coached under Garrette Mantle, Mickey Mantle's nephew. "He had some great stories about Uncle Mickey," Leitzke said. Once he had coached two years under Mantle, he became the head coach at Cameron. Leitzke didn't have any doubt he was ready to be the head coach, and neither did Mantle.

When the EAC coaching spot became available, Leitzke found out about it mostly through word of mouth in the coaching ranks. He and many other coaches were aware of the school and its strong athletic programs. It also didn't hurt that he and his wife, Torey, have a significant number of relatives who live in Arizona and throughout the Southwest.

Leitzke's initial recruiting visit was to Louisiana, where he signed two players -- Avery Weathers and Chris Pruitt. He has signed eight players overall, including Mario Gill, Michael James and Kalonji Paschal, all from Portland, OR; Dazmond Starke from Richmond, VA; Donald Johnson from Lancaster, CA; and Brandon Magee from Spanaway, WA. Gill, a 6-1 guard, avaraged 18.2 points per game last year as a senior in high school and was first-team all-state selection. Paschal, a 5-10 guard, scored 14 points in the 5A state championship game to lead his team to victory. Johnson is a 6-8 forward who averaged 15.8 points, 14.6 rebounds, and 4.9 blocks last season for Antelope Valley High School.

Leitzke has one assistant coach on the way. Ryan McAdams, who coached under Leitzke at Cameron, will be part of the Monsters' coaching staff.

"My wife and I are excited to be in the Gila Valley," Leitzke said. He also talked about how much he liked the school and everyone he talked with at Eastern. It's just as important to Leitzke that his players excel in the classroom as well as on the court. He knows fans don't know what to expect from his team this season, but he promises a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball at Guitteau Gymnasium. Leitzke believes that his team will be fun to watch, and he hopes the fans will continue to make Guitteau a special place to attend games.

Story written by Brian Wright, Sports Editor, Eastern Arizona Courier