Grand Valley using tough defense to succeed
PARACHUTE — Offense was always at the front of Jake Higuera’s mind when he played basketball at Grand Valley High School. Defense was a second thought.
Now, 10 years after he graduated from high school and two years into his job as the coach of the Grand Valley boys basketball team, those roles have reversed dramatically.
“I truly believe,” Higuera said, “that if we play defense, our offense will come to us.”
Such has been the case for the Cardinals, who were allowing 44.6 points per game heading into this past weekend and have allowed 50 points or more only four times this season.
That philosophy, along with a fast-paced offensive approach he retained from his playing days, helped Grand Valley (15-4 overall, 10-3 league) win the Class 3A Western Slope League title.
The Cardinals host Rifle today in the district playoffs.
Grand Valley and Higuera, however, attribute the position the Cardinals are in to the defensive pressure they’ve used all season. And the man Higuera attributes his defensive philosophy to is Roger Walters, who helped coach at Grand Valley for one season before becoming the women’s basketball coach at Mesa State College.
“He showed me just how important that part of the game was,” Higuera said. “As a player, I didn’t see it. But the way he coached it, the way he runs his defense and what he expects from them and what he gets out of them is something I’ve put a lot of my focus into.”
Granted, Higuera’s Cardinals still run as much as possible, just like they did under Phil Hemann, who coached Grand Valley for close to three decades. When Hemann retired after the 2000 season, the Cardinals had made seven consecutive trips in the Class 2A state tournament.
Back then, the Cardinals emphasized a transition offense and primarily, an amoeba-zone defense. Higuera still teaches some of the up-tempo offensive strategies he learned from his playing days, yet the defense he learned as a C-team coach under coaches Mark Cowan and Walters is where he puts his emphasis.
“We tried to teach the kids to be the kid that no one wants to play against,” said Walters, who also had successful runs as the boys coach at Rifle and Roaring Fork before agreeing to help out in Parachute for a season.
“You want to be tough and hard-nosed. You don’t get a whole lot of accolades. I mean, there’s nothing in the boxscore in the paper for taking charges.
“It’s really an internal thing, and it says a lot about what kind of person you are. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.”
The Cardinals have gotten things right this season, and people are beginning to notice. Grand Valley broke into the Denver Post’s Top 10 two weeks ago, and the week before that, reached the No. 10 spot in the Coloradopreps.com Class 3A poll.
The players have picked up on the defensive schemes along with Higuera’s “playing for the guy beside you” philosophy. There’s no dominant player on the team, yet four of them — Bubby Beecraft, Trevor Smith, Omar Melendrez and Dylan Walters — are all averaging more than nine points per game.
It’s all of the things defensively they’ve picked up in the past few years, just like Higuera, that have Grand Valley in its current position.
“Actually getting to be coached by Roger Walters was just a real, like, honor,” Grand Valley senior Matt Donello said. “Coach Higuera really picked up on a lot of things that Coach Walters taught him, so it was really easy to get into his system.
“And we’re all really close together, and when you’re really close as a group, that makes thing even easier.”