Dan Dona felt he was the right man for the job. He’s been in the program for 19 years and knows it from top to bottom.
Longtime Sonora High coach Dan Dona is the new varsity boys' basketball head coach. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat
His feelings were confirmed Tuesday night at Sonora High School’s board meeting.
Dona will take charge of the Wildcats boys’ basketball program after longtime boss, and the Sac-Joaquin Section’s winningest coach, Rick Francis stepped down on Apr. 2.
“It’s been a longer ride than I expected, going through the interview process and all,” said Dona, who graduated from Sonora in 1984. “But it was pleasant and good for me. The real nice thing about going through the process was that I thought I was the right person for the job.”
“Talk about somebody who’s ready to take over the program, it’s Dan Dona,” said Francis, the Wildcat athletic director who had no say in the hiring decision. “I’m very happy for him. He has been so loyal and has matured tremendously as a coach. I’m excited for him to take over the program.”
Dona, a physical education instructor, started his coaching career in 1993 as an assistant with the Wildcat JV girls’ hoopsters.
He remembers receiving keys to Bud Castle Gym and being alone inside for the first time listening to the quiet sounds and how “it felt like home.”
Dona was put in charge of the freshman boys in 1994 and coached at that level through 1999.
“Experience at the frosh level was huge,” Dona said. “Starting from the bottom and working your way up, there’s gonna be a lot of things you learn.”
In 2000, Dona went to Calaveras High for a teaching position and was also the Redskins’ frosh boys’ boss.
But his green and gold roots pulled him back to Sonora — that and a job — and Francis charged him with guiding the junior varsity boys.
“Francis has been more than wonderful supporting me over the years,” Dona said. “He’s an amazing man that’s like a father figure to me and so many of us. He’s an inspiration to me as a man.”
In his first year as the JV coach, Dona guided his Cats to a Valley Oak League championship. He also coached the junior varsity Wildcat boys on the diamond that spring. After being consistently tough to beat on the hardwood over the next 10 years, Dona again broke through last season and guided another group of Wildcats to the VOL title. Perfect bookends to his junior varsity coaching career.
He becomes just the third Sonora varsity coach in over 60 years and expects more challenges at the higher level but thinks the strong support from his family, wife Amanda and two sons, Gannon, 11, and Nolan, 8, and staff will make the hurdles more enjoyable.
“I’m excited to move up,” Dona said. “The pressure in being the head coach in one of your major sports is going to bring challenges, like being under the microscope a little more. I think my staff will be supportive and we’re not gonna make any drastic changes. I wanna get out and run a little more, maybe a little faster pace. I want the kids to play hard, give full effort, work together and love each other as teammates. I’m just hoping to carry on the proud winning tradition Rick had going.”
Dona takes over the Wildcat team that failed to make the playoffs this past season, a rarity during Francis’ tenure. But with the JV group that won the league title and a confident group of soon-to-be seniors, the cupboards are not bare and hopes are high wins will happen.
“The juniors are a very confident bunch, but not cocky,” Dona said. “I had the respect of my kids this last season … it’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be busier and a lot more work, but in the end, it’s really cool. I have so much pride in this school. I look forward to a lot of good years.”