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Ron Watson has stepped away from his job as Houston Academy’s head basketball coach after 16 seasons and the reins are being handed over to his assistant Scott Whitaker, who has 20 years of head coaching experience.

Dr. Scott Phillipps, Houston Academy’s headmaster, announced the school’s hire of Whitaker on Thursday morning. A previous head coach at Samson, Cottonwood, Ashford and Wicksburg, Whitaker has been an assistant the last five years under Watson at HA and has also been the Raiders’ middle school head coach.

He becomes just the eighth varsity basketball head coach in Houston Academy’s 49-year history and just the fourth in the last 36 years.

“He is a proven winner, but more importantly he is a school man,” Phillipps said. “He loves children and does a good job with the kids. I have been able to watch him first hand, working with our younger kids, including my son, and he was masterful.

“He is great with kids. He is a wonderful teacher of the game and of life. He cares about the kids’ academics and their personal well-being.

“He is the perfect coach, really. We are thrilled to have him. We feel fortunate to have a man of his caliber working with our kids.”

The hire was created by Watson’s decision to step down. A former standout at Houston Academy in the early 1980s, he guided the Raider program since the 2003-04 season after the retirement of Wiregrass Sports Hall of Famer Johnny Oppert. Watson amassed a 255-186 record (.578 winning percentage) at HA, including 142-66 at home (.682 percent).

“It is probably the best time,” Watson said. “Scott has been there for five years and he has coached those kids from the beginning when they were in seventh and eighth grade in middle school. The timing was the best thing because Scott can come in and take it over. I have been there 16 years and it has been a great time. Playing and coaching there have been nice.”

Watson directed seven players who signed college scholarships and seven who earned all-state accolades, including 2012-13 Class 2A State Player of the Year, Alex Thompson, who signed with Auburn and is playing pro ball in Europe.

His best team came in 2005-06 when the Raiders went 27-5, earning a school record for wins.

Though he is stepping down, Watson didn’t rule out returning to the sidelines.

“I don’t know,” Watson said. “I might have some interest (in the future), but I don’t have (any) right now.”

Prior to his tenure with the Raiders, Watson was an assistant coach for two years at Dothan High under Wiregrass Sports Hall of Famer Jim Golden.

For Whitaker, the Houston Academy job takes him full circle from his first coaching job when Oppert asked him to coach the Raiders’ seventh-grade team.

“It is something I have always wanted to do,” Whitaker of coaching HA’s varsity team. “It was the first place that I coached. Coach Oppert had gotten me to coach a seventh-grade team many years ago and I really, really enjoyed it. That was my first step down this path.”

That path, Whitaker noted, is similar to one taken by Oppert, described by the new Raider boss as a “go-to guy” for advice after his dad passed way.

“My path of coaching is similar to what coach Oppert’s was – the only thing missing was that time at Wallace (for Oppert) and of course there is no program there now,” Whitaker said. “He had been at Cottonwood, he had been at Wicksburg. Considering how much of an impact he had on me at an early age, it seems like a natural flow to me, like it was meant to be.”

Whitaker has spent 20 seasons as a head coach and has amassed a 318-184 record with eight teams earning 20 or more wins and eight winning area championships. Nine of his teams reached the regional tournament.

His most successful and longest tenure was at Wicksburg from 2001-14, amassing a 227-125 record over 13 years with five area titles, six regional tournament appearances and seven seasons of 20 or more wins. His 2002-03 team, which featured Vandrell Rivers, Jason Dawkins and Matt Cox, finished 25-3, one of the best records in school history.

He remains at Wicksburg as the school’s health, physical education and driver’s education teacher.

In addition to his tenure at Wicksburg, Whitaker has also led Samson (1 year), Cottonwood (3 years) and Ashford (3 years).

He assisted Oppert at Houston Academy for one year while still teaching at Ashford prior to going to Wicksburg.

Whitaker assisted with Wicksburg’s football program during his first couple of years at the school. He also coached volleyball, golf and was an assistant baseball coach for one season each while at the western Houston County school.

The new Raider coach, who attended Ashford Academy growing up, said he is glad to take over at Houston Academy after Watson, a lifelong friend. The two played sports together as kids and continue to be friends through coaching.

“I would not have any interest in doing this any other way if it wasn’t 100 percent supported by him,” Whitaker said. “He has been a friend of mine for 50 years, basically my whole life. He has always been great to me and a generous guy.”

The sentiment was the same for Watson, who gave his support to Houston Academy officials for Whitaker to be the new coach.

Whitaker said he expects the coaching change will be a smooth transition since the players already know him and he knows them. He coached all the juniors and underclassmen at the middle school and all of the players as a varsity assistant.

“I think it is a big advantage,” Whitaker said. “It makes it comfortable. There is no unknown factor to a large degree. I am sure sometimes as a player, they are worried about a (new) coach’s personality and what his quirks may be, but those guys already know that I have a bad sense of humor. They laugh at my jokes anyway and I appreciate that very much.

“We already know each other by name and by personality and that will make it a much easier transition.”

He takes over in what he calls a rebuilding year for the Raiders, who lost all five starters off last year’s team, including standout Srdjan Petrovic.

“We lost over 85 percent of our scoring, rebounding and assists,” Whitaker said. “There is a lot to replace because Srdjan did everything but drive the bus and wash the uniforms. Now I get to do that. You have to consider it a rebuilding year.”

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