DENVER — Nine guys. Just nine. The first nine.
Ten would’ve been handy. Ten would’ve allowed Joe Wetters and Nathan Moffitt to leave their sneakers at home — one of them, at least. Back when Wetters, the coach, and Moffitt, an assistant, took over the boys' basketball program at The Vanguard School — nine years ago, as it turns out — the two grown men had to work out with the teenagers. Didn’t have a choice.
“Had to bring our tennis shoes to practice every day to run 5-on-5,” Wetters said Saturday.
That kind of big-picture perspective served as a valuable tool after Manual tightened the vice and roared back to beat Vanguard 80-68 in the Class 3A state championship game. The lesson from Hamilton Gym: know your roots.
Know that Vanguard hoops wasn’t even a thing 15 years ago. Didn’t exist. Shoot, the program started 11 years ago. It was a newborn when 6-foot-4 prodigy Dominique Clifford entered kindergarten at Vanguard, and now he's a bona-fide Division I prospect. Pac-12, if he wants. Mountain West, Big Sky. They’re all going to call.
“I bet every coach in America wants a 'Nique on their team,” Wetters said.
And every coach in America should be lucky enough to live through a rise like Vanguard’s. The Coursers lost to a Manual squad that earned every ounce of its latest state championship, a school with one of the proudest hoops traditions in Colorado. Vanguard’s is just getting started.
Remove the perspective, and Saturday’s going to tickle for a while: Vanguard built an 11-point lead in the first half as Clifford, senior guard Seth Fuqua and the rest of these go-getters played like they didn't know, or care, they're not supposed to be here. Fuqua dashed through Manual’s pressure like he was being timed. He had 20 points, worked for each of them, and briefly left the game for a concussion test after taking an appendage to the jaw. Clifford had 25 points, seven rebounds and more assists than showed up in the scorebook, two.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t come through,” Fuqua said through tears.
Thing is, Manual athletes are wired different. Always have been. They don’t stop coming until the refs tell 'em to stop coming — same as it was when George Washington's Chauncey Billups rolled through the Thunderdome in the '90s, same it was for the T-Bolts’ 11 other state titles in 3A, same as it was Saturday night.
“We do these drills in practice where we’re down 15 and coach says, ‘Come back,’” guard Davion Davis told me afterward. “This was just like that. Like the exact same thing.”
They came back, and Vanguard’s lead vanished like a raindrop into dirt. Gone, just like that, a blur of Manual layups and steals and Vanguard turnovers (11 in the second half) and missed shots they usually make. It got wild enough inside Hamilton Gym that an extra policeman and two Argus security guards were summoned to form a barrier between the Manual crowd and the court. Got a little weird there for a minute. Got a little hectic. Got a lot March-y.
“I was surprised they kept everyone off the court,” a Manual coach whispered after the horn.
OK, real quick on Clifford: He’s the best college prospect I saw in Colorado in ’18-19, regardless of classification or position. He glides and then he explodes up. 'Nique is 6-4 and ran the point for chunks of Vanguard’s first state title game. Best part is he’s got a little Derrick White to his game — overlooked, under-recruited and better than his peers — and that’s among the highest compliments a Colorado kid can receive. Should we mention his 3.5 GPA and cool disposition?
“You have to be a good student here,” said Vanguard athletic director Rick Jensen. “I’ve been an AD for a long time. This is most academically challenging high school that I’ve been around.”
Don’t be surprised when I say Northern Colorado has been on Clifford the longest. From Sterling’s Bodie Hume to Rock Canyon’s Sam Masten, the Bears identify the Cliffords of our state better than anyone. Air Force and DU also are on him, and wait till the big boys get a peek.
“The main goal is to get back here,” Clifford said. “I want to get back here and do a little bit better than we did today. If you look back on it, we had a good season. But this is tough.”
Tell 'em, Coach. Tell the kids how a decade ago the Coursers went through an entire season and didn’t win a single game.
“We’re kind of a modern-day Hoosiers story, to be honest with you,” Moffitt said.
Thirty-eight kids came out for the team this season, the most they'e ever had. That's their biggest win. State title or not, it sure beats nine.