Submitted by Denair High School:
It’s a busy time for the Denair High boys basketball team. The Coyotes are in the midst of playing 11 games in 18 days – including hosting their own tournament later this week. By the time Christmas arrives, they’ll only have one non-league game remaining. By then, the players and Coach R.J. Henderson should have a pretty good idea of what is working and what the team identity will be.
If the first six games are any indication, Denair (5-1) will be an athletic, determined and tough opponent, with more depth than any of Henderson’s previous seven teams.
A case in point was Saturday’s game against Ripon Christian for third place in the Riverbank Tournament.
The Coyotes spotted the always powerful Knights a nine-point lead at the half, then fell behind by 19 points with about two and a half minutes left in the third quarter. But just when it looked like they might get blown out, the Coyotes ratcheted up their defense, created some turnovers and rode the hot shooting of Jack Henderson and Austin Upfold to score 12 straight points.
Henderson and Upfold both hit 3-pointers, and Mario Plasencia and Elvis Silva sparked Denair’s defense, which clamped down on the taller Knights and stifled their offense. The run that began late in the third quarter continued through the fourth, when Denair outscored Ripon Christian 25-6 en route to an impressive 68-58 victory.
“Did we celebrate? Yes,” said Henderson, who believes it might be Denair’s first victory over R.C. in 15 years. “The kids were feeling pretty good about what they did.”
Coming from behind against Ripon Christian may have erased some of the bad taste from Friday’s performance against host Riverbank. Denair was up by nine points at halftime, but a combination of poor execution and fatigue made for a disappointing second half in a game Riverbank won easily 56-38.
“It was our first taste of adversity this year,” said Henderson, whose club had won its first four games against lesser opponents.
Denair will be back in action tonight, playing on the road in Merced against Stone Ridge Christian, a team they beat 60-47 at home on Dec. 2. Tuesday, the Coyotes are in Livingston and later this week they will host the 21st annual Denair Holiday Classic Tournament. They play Big Valley Christian on Thursday at 8 p.m., Turlock Christian on Friday at 8 p.m. and Escalon on Saturday at 2 p.m.
Denair wraps up its grueling stretch with a home game vs. Hughson on Dec. 20.
Henderson said the early results show that Denair has plenty of depth with players who have spent much of the past year playing with each other on AAU travel teams. That experience, he believes, will be a strong point when the Southern League season opens Jan. 2.
“We’ve got three guys averaging double figures, but we’ve also got some other guys who are pretty good as well,” said Henderson, whose squad has made the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V playoffs the past two seasons. Last year, they notched their first playoff victory since 2007.
Senior transfer Jordan Smith-Sires – a bruising 6-foot-2, 210-pound power forward from Fairfield – averages 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds to lead the Coyotes. He has a high game of 22 points and 12 rebounds against Dos Palos.
“He’s just an all-around good kid,” said Henderson. “He’s built like a dude and plays like he’s 6-5 or 6-6. He plays with a lot of force and a lot of passion. He’s very strong and he’s got a good motor.”
Hayden Feldman, a 6-4 senior who made the all-tournament team in Riverbank, is next with 12.7 points a game.
“He’s been very good so far. He’s a smart player,” Henderson praised.
Plasencia, a sophomore guard, averages 10.3 points and 9.5 rebounds. He started as a freshman last season and was chosen by the coaching staff as a co-captain of this year’s team along with Upfold.
“He’s fun to coach,” said Henderson of Plasencia. “I can’t remember another time when we’ve had a sophomore in the role of captain.”
Plasencia is one of four sophomores on the roster, which also includes eight seniors – and not a single junior.
One of the seniors who has yet to play is Jacob Kuharski, a 6-5, 235-pound center who transferred to Denair from Pitman High in Turlock over the summer. CIF rules require Kuharski to sit out the first semester, but he will be eligible when the Southern League season starts next month.
“He played travel ball with Austin Upfold in the spring,” said Henderson of Kuharski. “He was looking for a team environment and found it here. He’s going to be a vital cog come January.”
The addition of Kuharski will cement what Henderson expects to be Denair’s identity this season.
“We’re definitely an inside team first this year,” he said. “Our DNA is force and trying to dominate the glass. Our guards have to manage the game and keep us in the right sets. We’ve got to push tempo and score off our defense.”
Henderson said the travel program has become of key piece of what he says reflects an important commitment to basketball by his team.
“Our core players will play about 100 games a year,” he said. “We’re all over the place. We go to Sparks, Nev., in the spring, summer and fall, and play four or five games each time. We got to Rocklin. We have a core basketball program for 10 months a year.”
Creating a serious basketball culture at Denair is one of Henderson’s long-term objectives. Part of that is playing bigger schools throughout the year. He feels competing against better players and tougher programs will only benefit Denair’s players, especially when the Southern League season starts.
“We’ve played 15 Division I and II schools since the summer and we’re .500,” Henderson said. “We’ve scrimmaged Modesto and Turlock and Central Catholic.”
Denair has finished second the past two years to Mariposa in the Southern League. Despite winning 18 of 24 league games during that time, the Coyotes are 0-4 against Mariposa.
“We’ve yet to get them in my seven years,” Henderson said. “Our kids don’t want to celebrate second-place finishes. There is a hunger here.”
Tip-ins: Henderson said the second Cajun Crab Boil fundraiser in November netted the team nearly $10,000, which helps to fund the travel program. … The Denair Youth League basketball clinic begins on Jan. 11 and continues with games the following three Saturdays. The clinic is open to any boy and girl in grades kindergarten through sixth grade who lives in the Denair Unified School District. For more information or to get a registration form, email Henderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.