That likely won’t change this year – or the next. But for the first time in the program’s brief existence, an aura of optimism drifts through the school’s small, dimly-lit gym on Baring Boulevard.
The school was created in 2003 and just last year, the NIAA (Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association) recognized the school as a Div. IV (smallest in Nevada) school, allowing it to play a varsity schedule.
Last year’s Warriors squad finished 2-11. The majority of the losses were by 30-plus points. Justin May, the school’s athletic director, was left coaching both the junior varsity and varsity teams. This year’s group is co-coached by Mark Denning and Brent Judy, both of whom volunteer.
“We are not a power but I really believe we are going to be able to compete this year,” Denning said. “We have already shown that we can compete … Hopefully, my goal is to get us close to .500 this year. I know that’s a big stretch but that’s my goal.”
Denning has experience coaching prep summer league basketball in Phoenix and ended up at Excel Christian after a few players, who attend his church, told him they needed a coach. Denning is also hosting an exchange student who attends the private school.
The Warriors are 0-4 officially in the young season but have already topped their alumni squad and the Hug junior varsity team, 43-36, in a scrimmage.
Excel Christian’s other coach, Judy, coached Hug’s junior varsity and freshman teams for five years before taking on his new gig. His wife is a secretary at the small school.
“(This season) has been encouraging. Most of our games have been close, we lost by 12, we lost by 14 and those were all things where it was really easy to pinpoint the problem,”Judy said. “That’s one thing we are trying to tell the kids. If you can figure out what you did wrong, then it is something you can fix.”
With Denning and Judy taking over the varsity coaching responsibilities, May continues to help coach the junior varsity team.
Both coaches said one of the largest difficulties trying to develop the program into a serious one, is convincing their own players to buy into the Denning-Judy product.
“There is kind of a culture around the program as a really small school, we need bodies (24 boys tried out this year, 20 last year),” Judy said. “So getting everybody on board with taking it seriously, making it a priority, not missing practice, you know, the little stuff, has been a bit of a challenge but we are getting there.”
As a small private school, with what is essentially a one-year-old basketball program — even though the program has existed since the school was established in 2003 — few to none of the students at Excel Christian attend the school solely to play hoops.
So the talent pool Denning and Judy dip into is the kiddy pool compared to other established programs in the Div. IV North, like Virginia City. Because they won’t be running with a lot of opponents, the Warriors will rely on the basics.
“We don’t have a ton of great shooters. We are not going to be able to compete if we give up 70 points a game so our main focus is playing good, tough defense, getting easy shots and slowing the game down to our pace,” Judy said.
The slower style of play is a change-up for Judy after coaching at Hug, which is known for its fast, up-the-court style.
After playing just 13 games a season ago, the Warriors will play 19 regular-season games this season and Denning hopes to play 25-30 games next season.
Said Denning, “If you want the kids to improve, you have to give them that chance to improve.”