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Culture of hard work paves the way to Abilene

The year Coach James Van Hook was born was the last time the boys’ varsity basketball team made an appearance in the Final Four of the TAPPS State Championship Playoffs. Flash forward 33 years to Thursday when the Cougars face The Woodlands Christian Academy Warriors in Abilene, TX for a shot at the state title.

As Van Hook and his team prepare for the semi-finals, he took time out to share what it’s been like the past 4 years developing the basketball program and what the boys will need to execute to win against the Warriors.

You’ve done something no other coach has accomplished in 33 years. How does that feel?

Choosing your first head coaching job is a shot in the dark. The fact we’ve been able to slowly build on our success proves that Northland and I were a great fit when they took a chance on me 4 years ago and that gives me a great deal of peace about being on a mission with Northland.

The most satisfaction comes from being able to serve the community in this way and seeing the community rally around our new found success. I get so excited when people come out to watch the boys. To see this community embrace them has been a blessing for all involved.

What was your first goal when you were hired as head coach?

My first goal was to grow the program. I told very few people this when I took the job, but one of my goals was to grow from 1 team to 3, and we’ve done that this year with 33 incredible young men.

Secondly, I wanted to create a culture of success, hard work, and fun. I have loved this game since I was 5 years old and while we should never lose that childlike love for it, there are very few feelings that are sweeter and more fun than winning meaningful basketball games. I was able to be an assistant coach (at Memorial High School) on some very special playoff runs and I knew if we could break the playoff dry spell, this community would fall in love with basketball.

Has getting to this level of success been easier or more difficult than you thought?

I had no idea how hard this would be. Just ask anyone who was around me for my first year where we went 8 and 23. I've had to improve at things I hated doing as an assistant coach and learn to love them. Those are most often the things that help your program win. 

Believe it or not, I'm not a very organized person, but I have a spreadsheet every day with a practice plan on it and I painstakingly plan every day so I can have a vision of how the kids will improve on a day in, day out basis. 

We have overhauled the way we play in several different ways this year, which took hours of film study, meeting with coaches I trust, and going to clinics to learn from college and pro coaches. It took time for me to find a style I feel fits Northland kids the best. I'll probably have to repeat that process again in a few years as the program changes.

What makes this group of boys special?

How much time you got? I'm not a perfect person, or a perfect coach, but I am so blessed that all of these boys have a desire to please their coach. They all have a deep desire to be taught, to learn, to improve, and to win. 

They are special because they all accept a role, own it, and excel at it. This came from having some tough conversations but so many of these young men have proven themselves to have the highest of character by how they responded to accepting a lesser role on the team. It's hard to be the guy on the bench who knows he's not going to play, yet still give energy and positivity to the team, and we have so many of those guys. I'm so proud of the sacrifices so many of these boys have made to make us a great team.

All of these boys are excellent young men. These boys all come from great families who have given so much to Northland. 

Finally, their team chemistry is second to none. I haven't had to get creative with team building. These are sweet kids who care about each other. I simply needed time and space to get them to gel. For instance, we played a two hour game of giant Jenga in December, and that was all the "team building" we needed. All they needed was time, and in that time, they grew to love each other.

How were you able to beat a team in the quarterfinals that you had lost to twice this season?

The first two times we played St. Thomas Episcopal, we played the entire game at their pace, took the shots they wanted us to take and turned the ball over in ways that gave them easy baskets. They are a fast, athletic, and physical basketball team, and we did not adjust well.

Last Saturday, we were smart and deliberate about making sure we took control of the game and our offensive output is proof we were in the driver's seat!

You've given kudos to the fans who came to the St. Thomas game. How did their presence make a difference?

As the 3rd seed playing the 1st seed, we were supposed to be at a disadvantage. We were supposed to be the underdog. I was blown away and humbled by how many fans came to watch our boys. You could see the energy they gave our guys and to have such a big crowd witness such a momentous win for our school was truly special.

WCA is one of the best shooting teams I have ever seen. In order to guard shooters, we must be prepared to make hundreds of extra efforts at the defensive end of the court to make sure they don't get too many open shots. Also, with Harrison, Christian, and Jake, we have enough size mismatches that we can exploit.

We have to make sure our size dominates the game and that we wear their guards down enough that they don't have the legs to shoot all those threes in the second half. 

Van Hook encourages the Cougar Nation to make the short drive to Abilene Christian University to cheer for the Cougars, but if work or school prevents the trip, the game will be broadcast on at NFHS Network beginning at 11:00 am central time on Thursday. A one month pass is available for $9.95. Visit http://www.nfhsnetwork.com/subscribe/retail to subscribe and watch the Cougars from your home, office computer, or mobile phone.


The Cougar Nation is invited to a state send off Wednesday, 9:30a.m. on the secondary campus.


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