With closing in on 500 career victories and more than three decades on the bench, Gary Childress has seen just about everything as a boys basketball coach.
He’s encountered a new situation with Vista PEAK this season, however, as he’s attempting to work two new players into his lineup midseason for the first time.
It didn’t happen in 16 seasons at Grandview, where any transfers he had were able to play from the start, so Childress is attempting something new. It’s yet another unique and different challenge that has Childress feeling revitalized in his new spot in one of far reaches of Aurora.
“I’ve never had a kid come in midyear, and now I’ve got two of them. My job is to make sure the chemistry is good,” Childress said, referring to juniors Marquise Johnson, a transfer, and move-in Jason Earnest, who both made their debuts against Elizabeth Jan. 15.
Johnson was an expected addition as he sat the mandatory amount of games after he transferred over from Aurora Central — where he averaged 8.6 points per game last season — but the 6-foot-6 Earnest just arrived with his family as a move-in from New Mexico.
Childress knows that changing the dynamic of a team that was off to a 7-4 start already has an element of risk, but the additions looked very good in an 82-43 win.
Johnson scored 16 points — including six in his minute and a half of action — and Earnest (who played at Atrisco Heritage Academy in Albuquerque) had a basket, three rebounds and two blocked shots. The two add further depth to a team already brimming with athleticism.
“Marquise is so tough to keep out of the paint, even against kids that are equally as quick as him,” Childress said. “He was able to get into the paint on guys pretty regularly against teams we played in the summer and in the fall. He’s got a variety of hesitation moves and then he’s just so powerful that his body allows him to do a lot…I think Jason will give us a lot moving forward. He’s a pretty active big kid.”
Among the other changes from last season’s 18-win campaign is the development of sophomore Te’Rae Johnson, who scored 25 points against Elizabeth to boost his average for the season to 16-plus points per game.
Last season, Johnson started half the games and averaged just over six points, but has become much more aggressive going to the basket. He has shown the ability to draw contact and finish as well.
Add in another scorer in Marquise Johnson to a team that already has two other double-digit scorers in junior Tre Early (11.5 ppg) and senior Alex Hawkins (10.5 ppg) and the Bison now have a mix they believe could be better than they had during last season’s campaign, which ended with a loss in their first Class 4A playoff game.
“We’re looking to get to the playoffs and play our game,” Te’Rae Johnson said. “It’s going to be a great season.”
Childress — who also coached at Limon, Yuma (where he followed legendary Ken Shaw, who just picked up his 700th career win at Regis Jesuit), Palisade and Ferndale, Wash., before Grandview — has had to work on all aspects of a program for the first time in a long time and he’s finding plenty of positives.
“It’s completely different, but it’s been good for me,” Childress said. “I had it to where things ran like clockwork at Grandview as far as organization and the kids coming into play, but this has taxed me and caused me to work harder on some things, which has been good for me.”
Vista PEAK is also aiming to win its third straight Colorado 7 championship before departing to play in the EMAC with the other Aurora Public Schools schools next season.
Childress isn’t the only veteran basketball coach making a difference at Vista PEAK.
Jim Bartok — a veteran coach of many stops at programs in Jefferson County and also in Aurora at Cherokee Trail — is also in his second season with the Bison girls program and has guided it to the same record as the boys, 10-4 overall and 5-1 in the Colorado 7 after both beat Skyview Jan. 22.
Most significantly, the Vista PEAK girls posted the first win in program history over Elizabeth Jan. 15.
The Bison had dropped the last five meetings with the Cardinals by an average of 32 points, but erased a double-digit deficit with its defense and sophomore Kierra Cox’s clutch free throws to win 44-40.
“This is the first time the school has beaten Elizabeth, so obviously this is huge,” Bartok said.
The win over Elizabeth has helped Vista PEAK match last season’s win total with nine games left in the regular season and come within two of the program’s previous high in wins (12), accomplished in the 2013-14 season.
Defense has been the catalyst, as the Bison have allowed just 35.7 points per game this season, nearly 10 fewer than a year ago.
Senior Jaylynn Johnson has seen a lot of growth from her team on the defensive end.
“We’ve come a long way; our defense has been absolutely amazing from last year to this year and defense definitely won this game,” Johnson said of the win over Elizabeth, in which Vista PEAK allowed just five points in the decisive fourth quarter.
Added Bartok: “Our defense has been fantastic and this is the most points we’ve given up in the last five games (40). We’re really digging in and playing some nice defense and our rotations are good.”
Offense is a bit of a work in progress, as the Bison have done it without a single player averaging in double figures.
Junior DeMe Moore has scored 9.6 points per game (plus a team-high 6.6 rebounds) and Cox is at 9.2, but seniors Johnson and Allie Johnston are also capable of big offensive efforts.
Vista PEAK is also in search of a return to the 4A postseason, which it missed out on last season.
The type of unity the Bison showed against Elizabeth could go a long ways toward that.
“Coach always says ‘Don’t play as five fingers, play as one fist,'” Johnson said. “We played like a fist tonight and hopefully we keep doing that.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel