Northland Christian's graduating seniors leave behind a legacy of success | Northland Christian School

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Northland Christian's graduating seniors leave behind a legacy of success

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By Kevin Cook | March 27, 2017

The Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools is growing accustomed to seeing Northland Christian at its state tournaments.

The Football Cougars advanced to the state title game, against Colleyville Christian Dec. 3 in Waco, and – with the team's season-long, number-one wide receiver hobbled by a freak injury, - put up a 14-0 second-half performance that left the Cougars ahead 21-17 by the time the buzzer sounds, the only TAPPS 4A season to end on a win.

Simply getting there, while a noteworthy accomplishment, is turning out not to be the Northland way.

The basketball team similarly advanced to the TAPPS 4A State Final before falling to Trinity Christian 91-74, the state-wide runner-up and another star on the Northland Christian Athletic Department's resume.

Though the trip to the state tournament in Abilene was the first for Northland Christian in 33 years, the Cougars were not content to simply punch their ticket and enjoy the sights and sounds. The Cougars were happy to be there, but not just happy to be there.

An early exit seemed all but certain, with Northland matched up against St. Thomas Episcopal in the state semifinals. The Cougars had faced the Saints two times prior during the season, falling 78-62 at home Jan. 31 and 69-56 at St. Thomas Jan. 12, losses head coach James Van Hook described as 'convincing.'

But the basketball team that took the floor Feb. 18 in Abilene Christian University's Moody Coliseum, and routed the Saints 75-61 to advance to the State Final, was not the same team that started out the season 3-7.

High school sports, with the one-and-done postseasons, is all about peaking at the right time. Coaches talk about it constantly, of playing the best when the lights are brightest and the pressure greatest. The Cougars, says Van Hook, only got better throughout the season, hitting their stride just in time to hand St. Thomas a significant loss in the biggest game of the season.

Van Hook had an inkling that this team was capable of that kind of run, but based on what he saw in the early season, he wasn't certain that it would coalesce in time to make a difference.

"It was really hard to tell in the beginning," Van Hook said. "I knew football was going to make a really special run, so I knew there were guys I'd be getting for basketball season relatively late. My starting point guard and my entire bench rotation were football players."

That left Van Hook's Cougars playing well short of a full deck for a significant chunk of the regular season. Implementing the football players and hammering out the rotations, responsibilities and lineups left Van Hook wondering, not even whether a long playoff run was possible, but just whether he could get his team playing its best ball before the season's end.

"After [football] won the state championship in early December, we really had a month to put this thing together before district," Van Hook said. "And we were still figuring out who we were in district. My stress level wasn't, 'how far are we going to take this thing?' My stress level was, 'this team hasn't come together yet.'"

Van Hook, in his fourth year as the Northland head coach, had been a staunch proponent of the Princeton Offense, but he noticed early in the season that his players were using the system to get into dribble-drive and kick situations.

So Van Hook called an audible. He opened up the offense, trying to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and relying on the creativity and athleticism on his squad to maximize the team's potential.

The results were encouraging, and the team found its groove down the stretch, culminating in a 40-point blowout of Bay Area Christian 92-52 at Bay Area in the final game of the season.

"That's when I took a deep breath, and went, all right, this is who we are," Van Hook said. "This is all cylinders, and we hit it right on time."

All cylinders meant the Cougars were at the top or near the top in categories like pace, scoring, three-pointers and Northland led the district in points at 75 per game, by the time the season concluded.

Leading the way for Northland was senior wing Jacob Beckstead, who averaged 24.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game throughout the season, connecting on 54 percent of his shots from the field and better than 41 percent from deep. What's more, Beckstead elevated his game in the postseason.

"He shot about 40 percent from three, can play above the rim and he averaged more than 30 a game in our playoff run," Van Hook said. "Getting him in places where he could play free, giving him the green light to put it on the deck and make some things happen for us was great. But it also raised the level of play of my other kids, because now they have the green light to try to create for the team, even if they didn't score."

Van Hook's message to the team early on was, 'We're done with plays.' The squad, which Van Hook said had the right blend of talent and temperament to benefit from the freedom, responded well.

"I've got great kids," Van Hook said. "They love playing together, They love throwing the extra pass. They love getting assists more than they love scoring. It was the perfect storm. It was lightning in a bottle, it really was."

Beckstead's postseason performance earned him a slot on the TAPPS All-State First Team, though he was just the third-leading vote-getter for District MVP honors.

Beckstead 3rd in District MVP voting. Van Hook says that, with the Cougars sitting at third place in district with a 9-3 record, and still finding their way heading into the playoffs, it's understandable.

"I think if we'd have finished first or second in district, he'd have been a unanimous MVP," Van Hook said. "But we had to figure ourselves out, and that's where we were at the end, and it was Jamir [Mason] out of St Thomas Episcopal, and there couldn't be a more deserving District MVP."

Any state tournament run is special, but this year's Cougars squad was especially special to Van Hook. This year's crop of seniors – Beckstead, point guard Colby Buckhanan, guard Tim Harrison and wings Alec Smith and Nick Woody – were the first class Van Hook has shepherded through all four years of high school ball.

"What made this year so special is these were the freshmen I had my very first year," Van Hook said. "This is the first group that, as a head coach, I spent four years with. It's a really special group, five guys that are all going to solid Division I academic institutions. They're all smart kids, unselfish, not afraid to be vocal, but their biggest strength is leading by example."

Van Hook said that not just any group can receive the offensive green light from its coach and transform into a free-flowing, ball-sharing, high-scoring dynamo, but he never doubted that the 2017 Cougars had that capability.

"Because I had such a special group of seniors, I knew if I just put the team together, give them time, they're going to jell," Van Hook said. "They're good kids, care about each other, come from good families, understand team aspect, being unselfish, commitment, all those intangibles. It was just a really special year."

With each playoff win, starting with a 63-55 win against Geneva on Valentine's Day, Van Hook found himself desperately hoping for more postseason success – and not for the reasons one might expect.

"To coach a team, and to have a special group of seniors, when we'd win a playoff game, it wasn't about ,'let's go get a state championship,'" Van Hook said. "I would just tell the kids, I am so glad I have more time with you guys. I'm glad we have another week. It's a group that, just to be around them blesses your life."

The five seniors blessed Van Hook's life, by his own account, but even more so, they blessed the Northland program, leaving behind a legacy of selflessness and hard work that Van Hook intends to build on with the returners.

"The five of them, having them on the court day in and day out, their example, their coachability and how that trickled down all the way throughout the program is something that's going to make my job a lot easier for the next four years," Van Hook said. "They're a special group, and the program is going to reap the benefits long after they're gone."

Junior center Christian Young, who averaged a double-double on the season with 18.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, will be Van Hook's only returning starter next year, but players like wing Jonah Farrar, point guard Christian Lovick and forward Harrison White – among others – now have a template for success to build off of.

Northland, in graduating the five seniors from this year's squad, will lose a great deal of talent, but Van Hook says that the loss is counterbalanced by the growth and value those seniors contributed to the program during their time at Northland.

Nothing is guaranteed, but TAPPS should continue to expect to see Northland hanging around at season's end for a while yet.

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