Hayden at the helm: Former Palisade player aims to turn Central into powerhouse again
When Ryan Hayden was an all-state basketball player at Palisade High School under then-coach Mike Krueger, he was such a competitive player that he earned a nickname not fit for print.
As an assistant for former Palisade coach Keenon Clement, that competitive fire didn’t die. During a drill, the two were battling so hard that Keenon’s wayward elbow split Hayden’s lip.
Now, as the Central boys basketball coach, the 31-year-old Hayden is still as driven and competitive as ever.
But Hayden’s biggest fear, when the “Palisade guy at heart” moved six miles down the road and a couple seats down the bench to take the Warriors’ boys basketball coaching job during the summer of 2011?
Losing? Failing his players?
“Man, I’ll be honest with you. My biggest fear, my absolute biggest fear when I first took the job was breaking down a huddle with ‘Bulldogs’ instead of ‘Warriors,’” Hayden said. “Saying (Bulldogs) for 14 years, I was sure I was going to do it. I think (ex-NBA player) Lamar Odom got himself in trouble doing that. That was my biggest fear.”
Three seasons with the Warriors under his belt, and Hayden said he has yet to realize that fear.
“Nah, I haven’t had it happen,” Hayden said. “I think I’m past that point, hopefully. I’m all in with the Warriors now.”
While Hayden’s tongue didn’t slip on the wrong mascot, he has had to deal with a once-great program in shambles.
During his first year as coach during the 2011-12 season, the Warriors went 0-24.
It wasn’t as if there was some huge dropoff. Central hadn’t finished above .500 since the 2008-09 season. It had been a slow, downward trickle. Talented basketball players had started attending other schools in the valley.
Central nearly broke through numerous times during the season, losing by three points to Glenwood Springs, then two points to Moffat County. During one of the final league games of the season, the Warriors nearly beat Montezuma-Cortez on the road.
But when it was all over, there was a goose egg in the win column.
But his disciplined, aggressive coaching style was starting to shine through.
Over and over, coaches around the valley, many whom had known Hayden as an assistant at Palisade, told Hayden to keep his head up. Former Fruita Monument coach Dave Fox, who during the 2011-12 season led the Wildcats to their third-straight league title, told Hayden if he kept coaching and teaching his players, the wins would come.
Hayden kept preaching to his players, kept doing interviews and kept trying to learn from other coaches. Loss after consecutive loss.
The breakthrough win finally came during the second game of the 2012-13 season, where the Warriors held off a late comeback by Delta to win 52-51. The one win broke through all of Hayden’s frustration, and where many had seen a sub-par program, he saw a chance to rebuild. Hayden had the opportunity to lay the foundation needed to return Central to its former glory.
For inspiration, Hayden didn’t need to look far. Steve Phillips, whom Hayden assisted at Palisade, had coached Central during its heyday from 1982 until 2000.
“In terms of coming over here, I was honored to be a part of this program,” Hayden said. “The things that Steve Phillips and Phil Cain were able to do at Central — but especially Steve — being his assistant and coming to where he was a coach for so many years, it’s amazing. I was so honored. As a player, Central was such a powerhouse.
“Back when Palisade was in the Southwestern League and we played them twice a year, Central was what every program was striving to be. I mean gosh, talk about a top-notch program. I felt like it was an opportunity, with all the history, and really a blank slate. There’s really so much room for growth.”
With a background grounded in winning, Hayden was off to a good start. As a high school senior in 2000, Hayden led the Bulldogs to a quarterfinal appearance in the playoffs and received all-state honors.
Krueger, who coached Hayden, said he was the backbone of the program during his senior year. During the regional final against Lincoln, Hayden hit an 85-foot heave to force double overtime, where the Bulldogs won 72-67. To this day, it’s arguably the most clutch shot in Palisade High School history.
“We built the offense around him, especially his senior year,” Krueger said. “But the cool thing about that group, and Ryan was a big piece of that group, is that people didn’t think they’d be competing with the best teams in the state two years in a row. Playing at the Pepsi Center and McNichols Arena the last year it was there. My favorite memory of that group is walking into a big arena — Palisade hadn’t been to state like that since the mid-‘50s — and their eyes were like saucers.”
After graduating and taking a year off, Hayden joined Krueger’s staff. A year later, Palisade grad Keenon Clement took over at Palisade. Clement, then 25, and Hayden, 20, were known for being active participants in practice. They didn’t just tell, they showed.
“We were both young bucks coming in and we got after it,” Clement said. “We’d play, and him and I would go all out. One of the things I could tell you, even at his age at the time, he had an incredible basketball mind. He’s incredibly smart. As a head coach, and this is something you need in an assistant, him and I would argue. I’d do something and he’d disagree and if it didn’t work, he’d get mad at me. He’d do something that I disagreed with and I’d be mad at him. There were times where we’d leave the gym without speaking. But it’s a great thing to have as a coach, a guy like Ryan. I think the world of him as a coach and person.”
In 2009, Clement left to become the boys basketball coach at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora. Phillips took over at Palisade and Hayden stayed on as an assistant. Two years later, Hayden and Clement were on opposite sides of the scorer’s table during Hayden’s first year at Central. While Smoky Hill smashed the Warriors 78-49, Clement said it is one of the highlights of his coaching career.
“I think so highly of Ryan, and to get the opportunity to coach against him — I teared up before the game,” Clement said. “It’s a great opportunity, and it’s amazing to see what he’s doing. You realize that even though you’re coaching against him, you’re rooting for his guys on the floor.”
After a winless season, Hayden found a player to build around: Trey Fair.
Fair, a lefty like Hayden. Fair, a tough, competitive, stubborn player like Hayden. Hayden saw a lot of himself in Fair, a junior during Hayden’s second season, and sometimes the two were so similar that they clashed. Fair and Hayden had a rocky start, but finally they jelled.
“I started trusting him,” said Fair, now a senior. “I knew he was looking out for me.”
From there, Hayden started building. He hadn’t had a full offseason during his first year, and he finally could spend time really shaping a team.
The result was a 9-14 finish. Not bad for a program that had five league wins in the two years before Hayden arrived. The season was capped with a 54-52 upset win over tradition-rich Fruita Monument.
While the Warriors finished only 6-17 this season, Hayden can see the pieces in coming into place. Central has a heavy load of player-run, voluntary workouts that Fair helped get going. He got buy-in from the star, and other players soon followed. There’s a stacked freshman class with lots of potential, and guys who have contributed at the varsity level this season.
Most of all, Hayden can see his coaching, his discipline, taking shape.
“Being a coach on the inside, it’s always hard to tell,” Hayden said. “It’s probably different than what (the media) or parents think it is. Sometimes I don’t know if what I’m doing is working. But I feel like the program is moving in a direction that we’re really excited about. Obviously we have a tremendous freshman class, and not only that, but the kids who are sophomores now had a tremendous freshman season. There’s a lot of talent there. And you know, it’s kind of rebuilding and your mark on it and it takes time to do that. But I’m just honored to have been given the opportunity.”