PHOENIX – Walking into the North Canyon gymnasium, Philip Studer had no idea what to expect.
The Rattlers freshman team took the court for its first game of the season while Studer, then all of 19 years old, skimmed over pages of pregame notes to get one last look before game time. As tip-off approached, a rush of pregame jitters, excitement and confidence rushed through the rookie coach.
In a game that went down to the wire, the Rattlers fell short of victory, but Studer and his team knew it was the first step toward acclimating the incoming freshman class to North Canyon’s established brand of basketball.
“It’s a long process, a long journey and things aren’t going to happen overnight,” said Studer, now 20, reflecting on his first game as head coach of the freshman squad. “One day at a time you have to work at it and my first game taught me about that journey.”
The young coach finds himself back at his alma mater in a role he could have never pictured just a few years ago.
Studer, who recently completed his second season at the helm, is one of the youngest head coaches of any high school team in the nation, but his youth has only helped him change the expectations around the team.
The season before Studer’s installment as head coach, the North Canyon freshman basketball team struggled to a 1-19 season. In the two seasons since his hiring the team has steadily improved from four wins last year to five this season.
“I think the team takes on his identity and his competitiveness,” said Michael O’Guinn, the head coach for North Canyon varsity basketball. “It bothers him when they’re not successful, and I think they want to please him, so with those two things you have a chance to win ballgames.”
Introduced to competitive basketball through O’Guinn’s AAU team, the Arizona Rebels, before joining the North Canyon basketball program, Studer’s special connection with his mentor has gone hand-in-hand with his ascension to head coach.
“I immediately clicked with his energy. I liked what he was about: no-nonsense stuff but he also was there for you,” Studer said. “He was there to answer any of my questions and was one of the first coaches that taught me to love and respect the game of basketball.”
As his former coach and now colleague, O’Guinn has always had a courtside view to Studer’s maturation through the ups and downs of his playing career before developing into the leader he is today.
Studer has always been a student of the game, but a lack of confidence derailed his high school career and caused him to question his desire to continue to be around the sport.
“It was my senior year, the COVID year, and I wasn’t planning on playing,” Studer said. “I was a big guy and my confidence wasn’t there, and the idea of all these people watching me play when I was so big pushed me away so I got a job instead.
“After being away from the game I reflected on my high school career and knew I could have done more playing basketball and that I left some stuff on the table. That’s when I started to evaluate possibly coaching and the opportunity came.”
After asking O’Guinn for an opportunity to be around the team, Studer began coaching as an unpaid assistant for the varsity team at 18 years old. Fresh out of high school, he spent the season acting as a sponge to soak up every ounce of information about coaching basketball.
The freshmen coaching job opened up after Studer’s first season with the staff, and O’Guinn knew his former big man was the perfect fit to guide an inexperienced group of players entering the Rattlers program.
“When it comes to being able to relate to these kids on a level of confidence, self-esteem and understanding that the game is just a game and there are bigger things in life, he’s special in that situation,” O’Guinn said. “He finds the balance between whether or not a guy ends up being a great basketball player, (and) they can still feel good about themselves as a person. That’s an advantage that we have on our coaching staff with having him here.”
At 19, and with no prior head coaching experience, Studer took the helm of North Canyon freshman basketball. His playing experience helped him with the Xs and Os, but he needed assistance with the additional responsibilities of leading a team and looked no further than the Phoenix Suns for guidance.
“I watched a lot of interviews with coaches, usually postgame stuff to pick up on how they acted and carried themselves,” Studer said. “I was a big fan of Monty Williams and this was the time not long after the Suns’ bubble run, so it really intrigued me about how he got his team to buy in so much.
“I read about what a bunch of different coaches did when people weren’t watching them, when the cameras weren’t on them, and what happens behind the scenes in the locker room. Coaches are supposed to have that mentor relationship with their athletes, especially at the freshman level. So I took some of that and applied it to myself.”
Unlike many new coaches, Studer’s ability to relate to his players came with ease, especially with the fact that he was only four years their senior. While finding the balance between friend and authoritative figure presented a challenge initially, Studer has made significant strides in striking the right balance.
The most significant impact of his coaching, however, has been in player development. Assistant coach Skyler Driscoll applauded the improvement the North Canyon players have made over the past few months and credited Studer for quickly turning the inexperienced group into a collective unit.
“Making sure these fellas perform. A lot of the players were coming in playing street ball with little experience in organized basketball,” Driscool said. “The way he has turned these men into players is astonishing.”
His players shared a similar sentiment.
“He makes sure that we are getting our work done, that we’re mature, that we stay focused on the basketball court and nothing outside of it,” said forward Jemorion Barron.
Added point guard Kaesin Salazar: “Before the season I had no confidence, you can ask any of my teammates, zero confidence. Over winter break coach took a lot of one-on-one time with us, and it really helped me develop a lot of my skills and gain a lot more confidence in my play.”
Studer, firmly settled into his role, faces the growing pains that any new coach battles. Taking the positives from losing, getting players to buy in and building self-confidence are some of the early challenges of his coaching career. He knows that while his emotions can get the best of him, the key to success is to continue to stand by his decision-making and believe in himself.
“He’s developing some confidence,” O’Guinn said. “He’s learning how to trust himself and put his own identity onto his team. Last year he was looking for validation with every decision that he made, and this year he definitely has more control of his team and what he wants his team to look like.”
Studer’s opportunity in coaching has led to a new interest: pursuing a career in education. After working closely with North Canyon’s staff, in addition to his coaching responsibilities, he decided to pursue a degree in teaching and plans to attend Arizona State University in the summer.
O’Guinn believes if he continues on this path, he has a bright future in the industry.
“I think he’s got infinite opportunities to be able to eventually find himself in a head role leading a program. He’s got a lot of time,” O’Guinn said. “It’s just a matter of what do you continue to learn? How do you continue to push yourself? Along with what sacrifices are you willing to make. I believe that if he commits to those things he will be a varsity coach at some point.”
At the end of year two, it’s clear there is still plenty of room for growth. Nevertheless, his impact has been shown in the box score, the development of his players and his influence.
His youth and energy have been a welcome addition to the program, and North Canyon basketball is continuing to grow with the help of his leadership.
“It’s so rewarding when you see kids you’ve coached having success. That’s the most rewarding thing, it’s not just basketball, it’s them becoming good young men,” Studer said. “Seeing them grow is the driving force in me continuing to coach down the road.”