The challenge was too alluring.
The opportunity to start a new high school basketball program from scratch in your hometown.
Matt Johannsen couldn’t pass it up.
So he left his alma mater Fort Collins High School just a year after guiding the Lambkins to the Class 5A Sweet 16 in his third season as coach, to see what he could build at the new school that was opening on the southeast side of town in the fall of 2004 – Fossil Ridge.
“I saw an opportunity to do something I could put my stamp on,” Johannsen said before a practice earlier this week. “… I want to see what I can do. I want to see if I can grow something.”
Johannsen, 53, never imagined the kind of success that has followed:
- Sixteen playoff appearances in 18 seasons, missing in his first season when the school only had freshman and sophomores that he chose to play as a varsity team and in 2009-10 when his team was decimated by injuries.
- Seven Sweet 16 berths
- Four appearances in the Great 8
- And two trips to the Final Four, where the No. 2 SaberCats (25-1) will face No. 3 Chaparral (21-4) at 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Denver Coliseum for the right to play the following night for the Class 5A state championship.
“I get excited just thinking about that,” junior guard Colin Hayes said. “That’s obviously the goal. It’s been the goal since the start, and to be in the position to get there is just so cool.”
Johannsen is retiring from his teaching job at Fossil Ridge following this year but plans to continue coaching, he said. A state title, though, might be the perfect ending to an impressive coaching career.
His 337 career victories, including a 298-142 record at Fossil Ridge, rank among the top 50 all-time in Colorado.
And no other program in Fort Collins lately has enjoyed the kind of sustained success that he’s had at Fossil Ridge, the only school in the city since 2001 to play in a Final Four. Fossil Ridge was the state runner-up in 2014, losing the championship game to Denver East.
No school in Fort Collins has won a state title in boys basketball since 1954, when Fort Collins High won the last of its four championships
“Some days, I can see myself walking off with the gold ball and being done,” Johannsen said, referring to the state championship trophy. “But then I look at the 12 juniors that we have, and it’s like I see no way I can leave those guys. I love those guys. I’m attached to them.
“Come next year and everything else, I’m going to be attached to another group, so it’s hard to walk away.”
“At the same time, the demands of running a program are tough.”
Regardless of when that final season is, Johannsen has left an indelible mark on high school basketball in Colorado.
His teams always play all-out on the defensive end, forcing turnovers that they convert to easy baskets in transition at the other end. Everyone that puts on the uniform is a capable shooter, able to hit open shots more often than they miss.
What really separates Johannsen’s program from others, though, is the cohesiveness, both current and former players said.
“It all comes down to relationships with him,” said assistant coach Chris Hansen, who was the Front Range League Player of the Year in 2010-11 and played on teams that advanced to the Sweet 16 his sophomore year and Great 8 his senior season. “He’s big into, we’re not teammates, but we’re a family.
“These guys after every Saturday practice it seems like they go out and do something together, because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company and you can see that on the floor, in the way that they play and the way that they communicate.
“They’re a very cohesive group. I think that’s really what Johannsen preaches, and this team has embodied that.”
They make the right calls to help each other out on defense and turn down open shots on offense to pass to a teammate who has an even better shot.
That unselfishness played a huge role in the SaberCats’ 80-54 win over Legacy last Saturday in the Great 8, where they had 27 assists on 33 made baskets while shooting 53% from the floor.
It’s all about “team basketball,” said assistant coach Spencer Roesener, who along with fellow assistant Mitch Ackelson, played on Johannsen’s first Fossil Ridge team. “I remember the last time we played in the Final Four, Johannsen said we’re not going to be the ‘all-airport team;’ we don’t walk through the airport and look like a team that’s going to run through anyone.
“But just the nature of the game that we play; we’re sharing the ball, we’re getting down, playing great defense, running the court. Those are the biggest things for us, and those are the philosophies that we really adhere to, and defense is at the forefront of that.”
That all-for-one, one-for-all mentality isn’t created out of thin air.
Johannsen has made a deliberate to turn his basketball program into one, large, happy family, where everyone cares about everyone else and lifelong relationships are formed.
That was the most important part of his own high school basketball experience, playing for John Olander at Fort Collins. Several of his former high school teammates were in the stands at the Denver Coliseum last weekend to cheer his team on in the Great 8.
“Coach really emphasizes the team being together and hanging out all the time,” junior forward Domenic Leone said. “All these guys are my buddies. It’s just really fun to hang out at practice and, as the years go on, you get to know each other better and better, play the game together better and better, know Coach better and better and just learn a lot throughout the program.”
To facilitate that relationship-building, Johannsen insists on bringing the team together regularly during summer camps and open gyms, making sure the incoming freshmen feel like they’re as important to the program as a senior returning from an all-conference season. Seniors are expected to mentor freshmen and sophomores, and the varsity team will often run drills during the season with the junior-varsity, “C” and “D” teams to reinforce those relationships.
“Ever since I stepped into this gym as a freshman, I felt a part of the family,” said guard Brock Mishak, now a senior and the No. 2 scorer in the state at the Class 5A level at 20.2 points a game. “I would say that’s the biggest thing we do here that other programs don’t do. The older guys would take me under their wings, and (Johannsen) makes sure to have the leaders take care of the freshmen, so that’s been good for me and the rest of the guys.”
Ultimately, though, winning comes down to the players.
And Johannsen is quick to acknowledge that, joking that “basketball’s an easy game, coaches make it hard.”
Still he takes pride in what he has built.
Several of his players have gone on to play in college, but none have been big-time recruits.
Hansen spent one year at a junior college before transferring to Idaho State, where he set a school record for career 3-pointers with 229 in three seasons. Cody Mivshek finished his career at NCAA Division II Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in southern California, Braxton Bertolette is a junior at Division II Montevallo in Alabama, and Mishak is headed to headed to NCAA Division II power West Texas A&M next year.
“I enjoy and take pride in winning with the so-called ‘soft, suburban, unathletic kids;’ nothing gives me more pleasure,” Johannsen said. “I love Fort Collins, this is where I grew up, and I take pride in winning with the kids that we have here, because nobody gives us a thought. When you’re out of the (Denver) Metro Area, nobody gives you a thought.
“The first couple years it was like, ‘Where’s Fossil Ridge? Where’s that at?’ And that pissed me off; that put a burr under my saddle. I said, ‘No, we’re going to be known pretty soon here,’ and I think we have a good reputation now as a competitive basketball school.”
Competitive enough to have beaten several of the top programs in the state earlier this season, including No, 4 seed Denver East and the third-seed Chaparral team it will face in Friday’s semifinals. Fossil Ridge’s lone loss was at ThunderRidge, the No. 1 seed in the state tournament and a possible opponent in the state championship game.
It’s been quite a ride.
“We took our lumps early on, when we first started,” Ackelson said. “But over the years, the program’s just gotten better and better, and so has the talent. It’s pretty special, and I think it’s pretty cool to see how far we’ve come from Day 1 to here.
“We take some pride in that.”
Kelly Lyell reports on CSU, high school and other local sports and topics of interest for the Coloradoan. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. If you ‘re a subscriber, thank you for your support. If not, please consider purchasing a digital subscription today.