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Girmindl's Ghost

A diary of Shaker High School's 2005-2006 basketball season, a retelling of Shaker's fabled 1979-1980 season, and general commentary on high school hoops, updated daily...

"I like sitting in the back row. I found that sitting against the wall is just easier on your back." -Dean Smith, on the comfort of the H-gym bleachers

Interview: Coach Holmes

On the record with Coach Holmes: [Note: I sat down with Shaker coach Jeff Holmes on January 24th for a 40-minute interview. At the time, the Bison were 12-3 and riding a 6 game winning streak, with 3 league games and the Suburban tournament to go.]

One thing that is easy to forget is that Shaker has really only had two basketball coaches in the entire history of the school. One was Julius Girmindl, who coached from 1963-1983 and the other, of course, is Jeff Holmes, who’s had the reigns from 1990 until now. Sure, there were other coaches for short periods of time both prior to 1963 and during the 80’s, but only Girmindl and Holmes coached long enough to really leave their mark on the program. Holmes’ mark includes getting his 4th Suburban Council title this year, as well as owning one sectional title (1991-92).

Prior to the interview, I didn’t know Coach Holmes at all, really. I hadn’t talked to him since I was in junior high school, when I had him as a gym coach. But two minutes after meeting him over in the lobby of the H-gym, I was instantly put at ease by his disarming friendliness and his obvious love of discussing all things Shaker basketball. We set up camp in a tiny, messy office just off the boys locker room, and began a wide-ranging discussion of Bison hoops both present and past.

I thought the present was the best place to start, and Holmes tried hard to stay low-key about this year’s team. I didn’t buy it. Throughout the interview, every time the conversation shifted back to them, you can see his face light up and his grin expand. It was easy to tell how happy he was with this year’s team.

“It’s just a great group of kids to work with,” he says smiling. “I literally have to kick them out of the gym after practice.” Not that he really wants to. “Fifteen years ago I would have stuck around and maybe played some pickup with them, but with three kids at home now, I have to put them on the clock. You know, ‘Three minutes and you’re out,” he says laughing. “I’ve had other teams that are out the door as soon as practice ends, but these guys just love to play.” Part of that is a sense of expectation among his palyers. “I think they’re feeling excited about what could happen this year…we realized our potential early this year.”

That potential has carried the Bison to a 16-4 regular season record, the best mark Holmes has had during his tenure, and the best mark of any Shaker team since the end of the Perkins-Cain era in 1981. “I think, in terms of athleticism [this is the most talented team I’ve had]. I don’t know about in terms of skill level – we don’t overwhelm teams with our shooting or ball handling, but in terms of size and athleticism, definitely. When you’ve got a 6’10” guy like Brad who is very athletic and then someone Griff’s size who’s also athletic, that’s a promising start. Throw in Duclos, Vernon, Eddie, and that’s a very athletic team.”

And it’s also depth that has helped the team this year. In fact, the talent level he has this year has changed up his coaching style a bit. “Traditionally, I like to use eight or nine guys, but this year we’re playing more than that,” he explains. “We said in practice last week that everyone has earned playing time, so they have to be ready to play at all times, but they also have to be ready not to play.”

But with all this talent and athleticism, Holmes has had to be careful about keeping the team from getting a big head. “You know, kids come in to practice, early in the year, they’re saying things like, ‘did you see we’re ranked #14 in the state?’ and I just don’t want to even hear about that stuff,” he says, still laughing. Turning more serious, he continues, “It’s nice to be recognized, but our goal is just to get better. We’re just going game by game. And that’s me, my style. We’re trying not to look to far ahead, I just try to challenge them every day to get better. We talk about practicing and playing at a championship level, but we haven’t really talked much about winning championships.”

That, of course, brings us to the one Holmes-coached Shaker team that did win the championship, his 1991-92 sectional title squad that featured 6’6” Reinis Kanders at center, 6’3” Frank Hart at power forward, and diminutive 5’8” Jamie Haver shooting the lights out from all over the court. I ask him to compare this year’s team to his 1991-92 sectional title team. Overall, he saw them as very different teams, even in terms of how the teams viewed themselves.

“In 1992, we just got some steam rolling, we got a lot better during the year. This year we kind of knew what we had from the beginning.” He also praised the 1992 team style. “That was a team that had great chemistry, it was really such a beautiful thing – everyone realized their roles, you didn’t even have to tell them anything by the end of the year, everyone just knew what to do.”

Just like this year, there were a lot of very good teams in Section 2 in 1992. “We won the Blue division in the Suburban [with a 15-5 overall record], just ahead of Shen, who we beat right at the end of the regulars season. Our early season game with Columbia had gotten snowed out, so we went and played there after we had already wrapped up the Blue and Columbia had wrapped up the gold, and they beat us pretty good. They [Columbia] were very, very good that year [18-2, ranked as high as #6 in the state.]

When the Bison arrived in the sectional final four, they found three very familiar opponents – Shen, Columbia, and CBA. CBA had only two losses on the year, one of them coming to Shaker in the Girmindl tournament finals. The Bison again beat the Brothers and faced Columbia for the sectional title. “In the finals, we got a real good start and jumped out to a lead. They pulled close and tied it late, but we made a shot in the final seconds to win it.”

Holmes compared his power forwards now and then. “I think Griff is a lot more physical than Frank was, and definitely more emotional. Frank played real hard, but Griff is just so physical and so tough. He’s really the heartbeat of this team. But I think Griff and Frank are comparable in what they did for the team.”

I then asked about shooters. “I don’t think we have a guy quite like [Jamie Haver] this year. We have a combination of guys, no real pure shooting specialist. I guess Brian Hooks is the closest we have to Haver, but we’ve done it more by committee.”

The ease at which Holmes recalls his former players, opposing players, and individual games from decades ago is really remarkable. He seems to have much of it right at the tip of his fingers. We talk about other Shaker teams – 1993-94, 1997-98 – and without missing a beat he describes opposing starting lineups, Suburban standings, and individual plays from games.

And he loves to tell stories about his former players. His face just lights up, and you can see how much he cares about his players when he talks about them. “Kanders [an exchange student from Latvia] was really just an amazing kid. I used to give him rides home from school and he would say to me, ‘Coach, I can’t believe it here in America, students sit in the classroom slouched down with a hat pulled over their eyes. In Latvia we had to sit up straight at all times!’ He graduated from Union in 3 years with a 4.2 GPA or something. I used to go watch him and Jamie play over there [ both Haver and Kanders played college ball at Union]. Jamie was just unbelievable. For not being the most talented kid, he just found a way to do it. I saw him once at Union go 10-12 from 3-point land and also take a charge against a guy who like 6-8, 240. Remember, Jamie was about 5’8” and 140 pounds.”

Not only does Holmes have great recall for his past teams, but he keeps in touch with a lot of his former players, often putting them to work for Shaker basketball. “Yeah, I see a lot of them. Eric Taylor [’00, a 6’9” center] was here over break. He was a three-year captain at Cornell and now he’s playing professionally in France. Sean Hennesey [’92] is my 8th grade coach right now. Frank Hart coached with me a bit, Jamie Haver coached the freshman for a while and is now coaching over in Scotia. And Brian Galuski [‘94] is coaching Greensboro College, I talk to him on occasion.”

The discussion turns back to the current team, and I ask him point blank if Brad Sheehan is the best player he’s ever had. He demurs. “That’s a tough one. It’s hard to compare. He’s probably the most talented and the most promising, but it’s something that’s hard to say, I don’t want to slight anyone…I’ve had some great players here. But Brad’s certainly in the top 3.”

He then pauses for a second before launching into some serious praise for his superstar. “In terms of the whole package – great student, great kid – he’s just the kind of player that it’s so rewarding to your career to have,” he explains. “You just cherish having him. I miss him already,” he says, and I can tell he means it.

I ask him about Brad’s leadership on the team, noting that I had found him very quiet – almost shy – when I had interviewed him back in December. “Well, he’s quiet, but he’s definitely a leader. A lot of it is leading by example. I told him once his sophomore year that players are always 15 minutes early to practice. Players. Since that day, he’s always been the first one at practice. To this day. He could easily say, ‘hey, I’m going to Georgia Tech, I can show up 2 minutes before practice,’ but he doesn’t. And he’s great communicating to his teammates. He’s not a yeller like Griff, he’s just the opposite, and that makes for great chemistry between them as teammates.”

As for Sheehan’s college-selection process, Holmes seemed delighted by Brad’s approach to the process and final selection. “I took a lot of calls from coaches. I didn’t tell Brad my opinion so much, I really wanted to let them decide. And his family was great – they understood the whole process, I thought he made a great decision. They were very analytical about it, they wanted the right situation for him, both with basketball and academics.”

Holmes then admitted that he might not have been quite as good at it himself. “I was sitting there during the Syracuse visit and I’m thinking, boy, if I’m 17, I’m sold,” he says as he laughs. “Coach Boeheim is sitting there talking 24 wins a year on average, he’s going to come in and play right away, talking lottery pick. But Brad sat back and listened, asked great questions, and wasn’t overwhelmed at all.”

I ask him about some of the other standout players in the Suburban this year, and we obviously get to Alex Zampier’s 43-point game against the Bison in December. “Man, he was incredible. The thing was that we scouted him the game before that he couldn’t make anything. He didn’t even take too many jump shots,” Holmes says, almost still in disbelief.

Now, some coaches would just get blistering mad if some kid dropped 43 on them, but Holmes seems to have a lighter attitude about it, almost a “what can you do but congratulate him” take on it. “So he did end up with like 20 or so in the game we had scouted. But he certainly didn’t score 43 and make 9 threes,” he says, chuckling the whole time. “On one of those shots, he almost kicked me in the face in front of our bench he was so far away from the hoop. He’s just a great player, especially when he’s hot.”

Jordan Stevens is another player Holmes holds in very high regard. “Our first game against them last year, the first time Stevens got the ball, 8th grader mind you, he got the ball down on the block and shot a turnaround jumpshot off the glass over Brad. And we’re looking at each other on the bench going, ‘Wow.’ We knew he was good, that he was special, but he’s in 8th grade. He’s just amazing, and should get even better.”

I asked him about the recurring issues that have bothered Shaker throughout the year: turnovers and press breaking. He thought they were getting better. “Well, we work on it on a daily basis, right down to the fundamentals: we talk about taking care of the ball, passing and catching with two hands, every single day. And I think we’ve gotten better the last two games.” That was certainly true, although since then it has been a mixed bag, with the Nisky game last Sunday being a clear example of the occasional back-sliding the team will do into being very careless.

One issue that I thought might be a bit touchy was the Maginn game. But actually Holmes was very candid about it, and surprisingly positive. “Once we got over the initial shock of it, we just tried to pull together and say it’s not really anybody’s fault. They made an unbelievable play, we can all take some blame. Griff was almost ready to kill himself. But I think we just tried to regroup and say, hey – it doesn’t look like it right now but this might be something that helps us as a team. And the other thing is that we played well that game. We shot 60% and lost. Especially after a terrible game like the Lasalle game. We came back and we executed well. You just have to move on.”

We also discussed the reffing in the league this year, which is some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time. Holmes wasn’t happy about it either, but offered an explanation. “I think what happens now is that so many guys are doing college games that we’re kind of getting a new crop of guys who aren’t at the top level yet. But I think I’ve gotten better about [dealing with the refs] over the years. I used to yell a lot, but now I’m more likely to yell at the bench or just to myself. You’ve got to try to stay above it. It’s like I tell the kids, ‘try to make the ref your friend.’

We start wrapping up the interview and I ask him what he’s going to do with his rare Tuesday night off from games during the season. “Oh, I’m going over to Nisky to catch some of the Averill Park game. We might get another crack at them in the Suburban tournament.”

One thing people often forget is that there are only 3 days between the sectional finals –which are on a Tuesday night - and the regional championship game, which is the following Saturday. That’s a busy time for any coach, with lots of press requests and scouting to do. So I slyly ask Holmes if we can sit down again after Shaker wins the section. With a big grin, Holmes gladly agrees.

Maybe then we’ll be able to talk championships. State Championships. Somehow, I doubt it. It will probably still be “one game at a time.” But I can definitely envision Coach's smile in my head. I'm looking forward to it already.
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