On the surface, there’s not much different about the Joy Christian boys basketball team this year.
The Eagles are 7-5 after a 69-42 victory against Phoenix Day School for the Deaf Tuesday. They were 5-5 at this point in 2010. Last year’s squad made the playoffs and lost in the first round. This team should return to the postseason, but a deep playoff run will be difficult.
For this group of Eagles, however, the difference is in the details. And the change started with the hiring of coach Robert Heinge before the season.
“Last year our head coach, this wasn’t his only job and he didn’t work here,” said sophomore guard and team captain Trevor Deason. “We actually had a lot of practices where we didn’t have him there. It was a lot less organized, we had some people ineligible for eight games. I was surprised we made it in the playoffs, but it really came to bear when we played a good, fundamentally sound team in the playoffs. This year, there’s been a lot of changes. He’s brought morning practices and he’s demanded us to give him complete respect. Our coach is focusing on not just basketball, but on when we’re in the real world, how to become better men.”
The boys basketball program, in its third season, has its first full-time coach. Heinge, a former player at Grand Canyon University and for professional teams in Germany, arrived at Joy Christian fresh off turning around the Mountain Ridge girls program.
In 2009-10, his lone year leading the Mountain Lions, he transformed Mountain Ridge from a 9-17 squad to a 18-10 team that made the 5A-I playoffs. His decision to come to Joy Christian was in part because of his faith, and because of the challenge building a small program from (almost) scratch represents.
“As a coach looking on paper and trying to find a varsity job, this isn’t your ideal position, if you’re looking for status or to climb the ladder,” Heinge said. “I took this for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, I thought God wanted me here, which is very impactful on how I coach. From a basketball side, to me it’s a challenge. It really puts you to task ask a coach. What do you really know? And do you know what you think you know?”
Heinge describes himself as a fundamental-driven coach, and he’s trying to impart that mentality to his players, on and off the court. He said he already had an advantage, because commitment and following are core Christian values, and the young men on his team exemplify that.
Still, his main struggle this year has been with consistency — getting kids to always show up for practice, to put in the work on their own time, and to meet the school’s academic and faith standards. That’s led to study hall after school and practices that start at 6 a.m.
“Coach has set a goal that he wanted us to be at a 3.0 average as a team, so we don’t have to do study halls. Because of last year’s unorganized style, they don’t come to practice, for whatever reason. I’ve talked to some of them about that and we’re going to work on that in this half of the season,” Deason said. “Basketball is there, but it’s everything we have to do outside of basketball that’s going to affect how we are as people. If we can get all that together and come together spiritually, we can get that bond and chemistry that will go to the court.”
From a basketball perspective, the challenge is more daunting. Heinge is the only coach on staff with an extensive coaching background. One of his themes this year has been for all the coaches to come up with a consistent athletic philosophy for Joy Christian, even if individual coaching styles differ.
In all, Heinge sounds like a man who is here for the long haul. He said his goal is to build a competitive small-school program, not to put together the occasional powerhouse team.
Down the road, he’d like to see Joy Chrisitan grow into a consistent 1A contender, as well as a team that can play with 5A and 4A schools when they meet in tournaments. A nearby example in Northwest Christian, which came within a point of winning the Northwest Invitational Tournament over Christmas break.
“You don’t build a program off talent. You build it off fundamentals, off principles and off character, and off the variables you hope to gain when you become a great program,” Heinge said. “It’s very rewarding, because you can take advantage of teaching kids things they have not been taught. Coming to a bare-roots school, you get to hopefully set that foundation that will be the tradition that they grow on.”
That’s not to say the Eagles are bereft of talent. Heinge said its rare for many bigger schools to have a 6-8 center (junior Jeremiah April) an athletic 6-3 forawrd (junior Ed Beasley) a 6-4 forward who played some in his native Germany (Fabien Kuehhurt) and a point guard who sees the floor and understands the game (Deason). Joy Christian also has a large (relatively speaking) freshman class that Heinge said he’s enjoying the chance to mold.
But, as Heinge’s learned in his return to coaching boys basketball, 1A is teeming with up and coming programs. So far, the coach said, Joy Christian has won the games it should win and lost the games it should lose. Among those losses are a competitive game with Phoenix Veritas Prep (77-60) and blowouts administered by Valley Lutheran (69-29) and the Orme boarding school (99-30).
Those results were not a major surprise, Valley Lutheran was the 1A runner-up in 2010, losing to Gilbert Christian in the finals. Orme may be one of the best teams in the state, with a 12-0 record and wins against 4A and 5A competition.
“The talent level is much tougher than it was 12 years ago when I coached 2A. The Orme school has some phenomenal athletes. They have foreign exchange students from Turkey and some other parts of Europe. I looked at them and said, ‘whoa, you’re reminding me of some lower-level national teams.’” Heinge said. “If we learn the mental toughness to go out and compete every game, to compete in every practice, will go out and compete with any team in 1A. We need to compete in 1A with a 5A mentality.”
For now, Heinge is OK with his team’s place in the second tier of 1A. He sees progress, and the early signs of a consistent program are there.
“The best thing is, we’re a young program. We’re two or three years out from being dominant,” Heinge said. “But as long as your program is building, that’s what you want to see is growth. If we were stagnant and just trying to win off talent, I would say I’m not your coach. That’s not why I’m here. I’m here for the long haul.”