Hoops: The Basalt Longhorns’ path to 0-20
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
BASALT – Shane Vetter sat in his office with sophomore center Javier Huerta looking over video footage of the final regular-season game against Aspen.
The day after the lopsided loss, Huerta wanted to critique his and his teammates’ play.
One moment that stood out was Huerta’s hustle against Aspen forward Austin Roark in the final minutes of the game. As Roark jumped for a dunk, Huerta made a last-second effort to thwart one of the top players in the 3A Western Slope.
Huerta got his hand on the ball, and Roark crashed to the ground. The effort ignited the Basalt home crowd and both benches.
What was more inspiring for Vetter, besides the great defensive play, was that his 6-foot-1 center was in his office.
“The kid would not have come to me four months ago,” Vetter said. “He showed me the footage. We went through it frame by frame. Javier doesn’t even touch his arm, and he stops him from going up with the ball. That was the most beautifully played defensive play all year.”
When the foul was called, the Longhorns were down 34-19, on their way to an 0-19 record and an eventual 0-20 finish. After the final buzzer, however, the team heading into the locker room did not look like one whose losing streak had reached 24 dating back to last season.
“We were celebrating,” Vetter said. “We weren’t celebrating the fact that we lost, but we did a bunch of things we weren’t able to do during the season that we did in that game.”
The season was more than an uphill climb, according to the first-year head coach. Vetter took over a program whose last winning season came during the 2005-06 season. The Longhorns went 11-8 that winter, then changed coaches three different times before Vetter. Last year, under Jon Pettit, the Longhorns went 5-15.
Before practice started, the challenges were readily apparent: The team went back to the fundamentals and chemistry was not developing. Players left the team and leadership was nowhere to be found.
Vetter, 36, grew up in the projects of Manhattan and found sports to be his saving grace. He took the Basalt head coaching position because he knew what sort of impact sports had on his life and wanted to make a difference.
“Going through hard times, I had some coaches who really taught me about character,” Vetter said. “And that really followed through and brought me through my education. It was really instrumental stuff.”
He was a four-year varsity player at High School for the Humanities in Manhattan and prided himself on being a distributor. He had experience in coaching in a few assistant positions when he lived in Manhattan working as a musician and a filmmaker before relocating to Basalt in 2002. Since, he opened Fatbelly Burgers in Carbondale, married and had two young children.
Experience did little, however, to prepare him for what he was to encounter.
“Walking into the first open gyms was pretty shocking,” Vetter said. “The guys were so raw and so small physically.”
Because football season was still in full swing, Vetter thought bigger guys were on the way. They never came. He thought he had his bench players participating in the open gyms. They turned out to be his starters.
“We went through tryouts and I started to realize that this would be a lot harder than I thought,” Vetter said. “We didn’t have to cut many kids.”
Tryouts consisted of basic passing drills and dribbling through cones – nothing too complicated because, as Vetter said, he didn’t want his players become too dejected so early.
“In reality, only two of us played varsity minutes, so most of the kids didn’t have experience,” junior Bertilio Garcia said. “We thought we were going to be decent. When we showed we didn’t have chemistry in the first practices, I started to have doubts.”
Added Huerta: “No one really wanted to take it seriously. None of the players had the fundamentals down. That really hurt us because that’s where basketball starts – at the fundamentals.”
Vetter said his team missed 32 straight layups during one early practice and players were routinely missing six free throws out of 10.
The coaching staff’s strategy completely went out the door.
“I spent the first month trying to get in the kids’ heads, trying to figure out who they were,” Vetter said. “Were they here because they actually had a passion for basketball? Or was it they wanted a letter on the jacket, or because their best friend was there?”
Before the season opener against Glenwood Springs, Vetter left the locker room to let the players decide what their objectives were for the game. When he returned, he received an even bigger eye opener.
“They decided as a whole that they were going to lose by less than 20 points,” Vetter said. “That was their expectation. They already decided that they were going to lose, but they were going to set a new standard this year, that instead of being beaten by 40 they were going to be beaten by 20.”
The Longhorns did not live up to the objective against the Demons – they were blown out, 71-35. The team quickly dropped to 0-3 after the season’s opening weekend. It had a week off before its fourth game at Vail Mountain School.
“No one was really in shape,” Vetter admitted. “We couldn’t make 10 layups in a row. Fundamentally, we were so weak and the passing was so bad – it was almost Three Stooges like.”
Added Garcia: “We had groups of kids who would hang out with each other. From my perspective, we were being too much like individuals and we weren’t playing up to our expectations.”
Through those early weeks, Vetter began to learn why his players lacked confidence and why his team struggled to build chemistry. They confided in him, saying they were afraid to shoot because they got benched when they did last year. Some of them didn’t get along with other guys on the team, either.
“When I saw a lack of confidence in these kids, it broke my heart,” Vetter said. “I knew how great these kids were on a personal level, and their academic prowess was great. This was just a character problem. They’re not soft, they’re broken.”
Vetter was especially concerned with his team not treating each other like family. He looked to some of his seniors for leadership, but none stepped up. He tried to reach out to past coaches for help, but none of them wanted to come back. Parents and fans started to complain as the losses pilled up. Vetter said the outside influences began taking a toll.
The low point likely came after Jan. 20’s 73-14 to Aspen, dropping the Longhorns to 0-9. Two seniors left the team after the game.
While some players thought it might refocus the team, more of the same continued.
“Everyone thought we were going to be serious, but it wasn’t,” Garcia said. “There was still a lack of focus, and people wouldn’t try to make us better. You play how you practice, so if we don’t take practice seriously we can’t get better.”
After every loss, Vetter brought his team together in the locker room and asked: “What did we do?” He would tell them they made 23 turnovers, shot 20 percent from the floor for the third game in a row or missed 11 one-and-one chances.
He would be brutally honest with hard stats, then tell them what they did well.
“We scored 28 points in one quarter, then two in another. That means we got hot and we were in sync,” Vetter said. “When we’re sweating it and working hard, we can beat anybody. I tried to say every positive thing. I emphasized it.”
He pointed to the game following the humbling loss to Aspen as a turning point. Before facing Gunnison, Vetter brought in a book on Michael Jordan that had simple illustrations of the game. After nine losses, players started to rally around their coach.
“Every time after the game, we always knew what we had to work on,” Huerta said. “Coach never stopped encouraging us. He was being really serious about playing and everyone saw that.”
Added Vetter: “We started using the word family a lot. We started to believe we were a basketball team. Before the season, we were just a bunch of kids playing basketball.”
Vetter noticed more guys raising their hands to speak in the locker room at halftime during games. Players started to get on each other, saying they needed to be quicker or play harder. While Vetter admitted his team still “stunk” on the court, the group kept learning and striving to improve.
“We started picking out little things they were good at, and they started to see it,” Vetter said. “They started to see results, and they began to believe in themselves a little bit at the end.”
Against Moffat County, the Longhorns tied a season high with 58 points, but lost by 12.
On the court, the motion offense and constant mistakes still drew ire from the fan base.
Throughout the season, the comments from the crowd were constant and hard to ignore. The coach understood that most were made out of frustration, but the words were damaging to players.
“I had five kids in my office crying because of things that the crowd said,” Vetter said. “It’s really tough. They’re asking: ‘Why are they saying this about me?’ The negativity is humiliating to the kids. The people who they feel are their support system are coming down on them all the time.”
Vetter’s stoic demeanor on the sideline is what he believes drew a lot of opposition. His coaching style is a big change, according to athletic director Ralph Smalley.
“He brought a different philosophy, which people and the students weren’t used to,” Smalley said. “It was a change, and change is hard to take. I think he needed a year to grow as a coach, and I think that change will pay off.”
Vetter, who had no head basketball coaching experience, has coached baseball in the recreation leagues.
In four years as athletic director, Smalley admits that the Basalt boys basketball coaching job is a tough position because of all the other winter activities. He has confidence, however, that Vetter’s attitude and motivational style can attract athletes to his team.
“He’s the type of coach you want involved in schools,” Smalley said. “He’s a great guy to be around and be a role model for gentlemen in our athletic programs. While it was a tough start, I think people are starting to realize the pride these kids have in themselves has grown tremendously.”
Smalley hopes the support for the basketball team can continue to grow. For a community with a tradition of successful basketball, he thinks it can return with time.
“We had a great team and they got used to winning,” Smalley said. “As a high school, we need the community involved.”
Smalley and Vetter guarantee that next season will be different.
“I really do believe in these kids,” Vetter said. “There are about eight kids here who people aren’t going to believe are the same kids. They will have no excuse next season because they will have every tool that they possibly need.”
One of Vetter’s goals for the offseason is to establish a summer recreation league in Basalt, something none of his players have ever had. He also is looking to work with coach Steve Ketchum of Aspen High School to get his players involved in Ketchum’s summer camps.
“The problem with our team, and it happens every year, is that we say we’re going to change this and work out during the summer and we don’t,” Garcia said. “Next year’s games are going to come down to the wire instead of halftime. We’re going to get a couple of wins.”
For a winless team – one that is 18-62 over the last four seasons – the only place to go is up. Garcia and other teammates already have begun working out in the weight room and are excited about playing basketball during the summer.
“We’re definitely going to be the underdogs next season,” Huerta said. “It’s going to take a good work ethic. Everyone is going to have to hit the gym and play basketball over the summer.”
Vetter said there are a couple of forwards on his C team who he thinks can become contributors in a year or two.
“It sucks to be the winless coach in Basalt with everything going on,” Vetter said. “My commitment is long-term but, unfortunately, a lot of people get to have an opinion for what coaches get to do around here. I hope they give me a chance.”
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It’s that time of year — hikers and mountain bikers must be aware that seasonal closures are taking effect on multiple trails in the area today for the winter for the benefit of wildlife.