After a playoff appearance a year ago on the strength of a solid senior core, this year’s version of the Cleburne Yellow Jackets are a largely inexperienced bunch that will have to learn on the fly in the 2020-21 season.
When Cleburne ISD hired Jeff Bush as the district’s new head boys basketball coach in May 2019, both sides realized there might be a bit of a rebuilding process in the works.
“I know we’ve got a lot of work in front of us, but I’m not scared of that at all,” Bush said when he was hired. “It’s going to take some time and work. But we’re excited.”
Despite some early struggles and growing pains in the 2019-20 campaign, Bush guided the Jackets to a surprise playoff appearance before falling in the Class 5A bi-district round to Lancaster, the top-ranked team in the state.
So, even with a 9-24 overall record a season ago, Bush and the Jackets surpassed the expectations many placed on Cleburne basketball last year.
Now the challenge is to do that again in 2020-21, but with an even less experienced core.
Cleburne, which is off to an 0-2 start after losses to Benbrook and Everman, lost nine players off last year’s team, including four all-district performers, headlined by leading scorers Blane McElroy and Nash Mosoba.
The Jackets only bring back two players off last year’s team in forwards Carson Harris and Jonathon Isbell (and potentially forward Gavin Naquin if he opts to play after football season is over).
Bush said he likes the energy his young players have consistently brought in practice to this point.
“There’s a lot of good energy at practice and they’re taking coaching,” Bush said. “There’s a lot of good energy in practice because we’re so young. Right now, we’re carrying 10 — we have two seniors, two juniors and six sophomores. Practices are pretty upbeat even as early in the morning as they are. Kids are flying around having fun.
“But the biggest thing is, like last year, this group believes in themselves — in a good way, not in a cocky or arrogant way, which is good.”
Bush said they’ve entered the season knowing there will be growing pains, but with the expectations of still contending for a playoff spot.
“We’re kind of learning on the fly and building while we’re going along,” Bush said. “The kids are learning how to play together. But at the same time, even though most of them haven’t played varsity before, they’ve been in our program for a year now so they know the expectations. They know what to expect in the weight room. They know what we do in the film room.
“In our eyes, we’re still pushing for playoffs and we’re looking to go forward and win a playoff game. I know some people may see that and think that might be a little crazy. But our goals are to get better every day. We see the end product being we get back to the playoffs.”
Early on in the season, Bush said the No. 1 thing they’re working on is consistent execution.
“The biggest thing for us is right now is that we need to learn to execute on the offensive end,” Bush said. “Our effort was there in these first two games. … Half of our team can’t drive themselves to practice, so we’re still teaching them little things, like how to set screens, where we want them set and why we’re doing things in a certain way.
“We’re trying to get them to understand why we do every little thing and that there’s a reason for everything we’re doing. If you explain it all to them, it makes them more keen to do it.”
Leading the way in Cleburne’s first two games was junior Taylor Humphrey, who netted 16 and 21 points. Other newcomers playing big roles early on include sophomore Kamren Scott and sophomore Cole Mullins.
As lethal as McElroy was from the perimeter for the Jackets a year ago, Bush said he believes this group is a more balanced shooting team instead of having to rely on essentially just one outside threat.
“I think we shoot it better overall than we did last year,” Bush said. “We don’t have Blane, who was never open and still hit 117 3’s last year. But I think as a whole, we have more kids that can hit outside shots, which makes it tougher to take just one of them away.
“I think we’ll be more balanced. Last year, between Blane and Nash they almost scored 1,000 points combined. So we have more balance this year with our starting five and we have a couple kids we think will help us once football season is over. We also have some kids coming off the bench we trust to play well.”
Something Bush is hoping to see develop in this team is to finish plays when they’re there to be made.
“The biggest thing is players making plays,” Bush said. “A lot of coaches would like to believe they have a lot of control over the game, but at this level at 5A, kids are going to have to make shots, finish through traffic and make plays.”
Considering how much youth Cleburne will rely on this season, the Jackets’ growth process was stunted a bit when spring leagues were canceled because of COVID-19.
“It would’ve been nice to have a spring, especially with such a young group,” Bush said. “I’m not going to say it didn’t hurt everybody, but if you have a big group of returners it’s easier to overcome. We have 10 kids that are playing their first varsity basketball games. Not having a spring with them to build and improve upon was tough. … Then we lost a scrimmage this year because of the pandemic.”
In these uncertain days, Bush said they’re consistently preaching to their players to control what you can control.
“We wake up in a new world almost every day: ‘Are we going to school today? Can we practice today? Are we going to play today?’” Bush said. “That’s something you have to be ready for every day. What I tell my kids is go into every day and not take advantage of anything because the season could be over tomorrow. You don’t want to give 30 percent of your effort just because you didn’t feel like doing it that day, because it could be your last and is that how you want your last day to be?”
The Jackets are next scheduled to play at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Midlothian Heritage.