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Cheyenne Mountain's St. Clair relishes second chance, this time as an underdog
Catch up on the latest playoff basketball coverage in the Pikes Peak region.
He doesn’t feel the pressure as much this time. That’s perfectly fine with J’on St. Clair.
The second-year Cheyenne Mountain boys’ basketball coach has the Indians (19-6) in uncharted waters, appearing in the 4A quarterfinals for the first time as they take on defending 4A state champion Lewis-Palmer (22-3) at 1:15 p.m. Saturday at the Denver Coliseum.
Three years ago, he led a 23-2 Rampart squad into the 5A quarterfinals, also at the Denver Coliseum. Playing a Doherty squad the Rams had already beaten twice in the regular season and going up against his father-in-law in coach Dan McKiernan, St. Clair watched his Rams blow a 22-point lead. The Spartans won an overtime thriller 69-64 to advance to the state semifinals.
Time, and opportunity lost, perhaps helped shape St. Clair’s perspective heading into last week’s round of 16 tournament in Pueblo. Something must have worked. The No. 3 Indians defeated Durango, then took out second-seeded Pueblo East.
“I’m usually pretty stern, making sure we do things right in practice,” St. Clair said. “Last week, I was more laid back and did a lot more fun things, and that helped our kids just play. It goes back to my experience before. I need to change and learn from it.”
This time around, it’s St. Clair who is the prohibitive underdog since his Indians fell twice to Lewis-Palmer in league play last month.
“I think there’s definitely pressure on them to win,” St. Clair said. “They beat us two times already, and they’re the defending state champions. People say we’re not supposed to win this game.”
While Cheyenne Mountain is new to the pressure cooker of the quarterfinals, Lewis-Palmer has made a habit of deep playoff runs and learning how to stay composed in just about any situation. Rangers coach Russ McKinstry, in his fifth season, has led his teams to a staggering 20 playoff games, going 17-3 since he took the reins prior to the 2008-09 season.
The Rangers fell in the semifinals three consecutive years before finally breaking through last season, nipping Sierra by one point to win it all. If there’s an experience factor, Lewis-Palmer owns it.
“I think we can use that to our advantage to not make the moment bigger than it is,” McKinstry said. “I think we’ve taken a businesslike approach during practice. But when you take the enthusiasm and momentum they have, that can offset things. It’s still basketball, and the team that executes best and makes plays will be the team that comes out on top.”
McKiernan, a two-time state 5A champion coach at Palmer in 1993 and 2000, reflected on playing a team three times in the same season, and the psychology of coaching needed to counteract momentum swings in pressure-packed situations.
“You’ve got to feel that in a third meeting, they’re not going to change, because they beat you twice,” McKiernan said. “The advantage goes to the team that lost twice. They can manipulate and change and do different things that the other team hasn’t seen yet. By this point of the season, you’ve coached so much, now it’s time to manage them now, not letting them get too high or too low. I sure didn’t outcoach J’on in that game. His kids tightened up and we were able to execute.”
St. Clair thinks back to the plays he saw early as Rampart dominated early. Then, as McKinstry alluded to, the Rams got caught up in the moment and couldn’t recover. Saturday, he has a chance to do things differently.
“We were up big and kind of let down,” St. Clair recalled. “My halftime speech will be different this time.”