Three seasons away from Columbia Heights left boys’ basketball coach Willie Braziel eager to return when the job opened.
Clearly the feeling was mutual. Braziel, the Hylanders’ coach for six seasons from 2007-13, resumed his former post this winter and directed them to the Class 3A state tournament for the first time since 2011. That previous appearance marked the Hylanders’ first in 81 years.
But you won’t catch Braziel touting his role in the revival. An 0-27 record last season at Bloomington Kennedy brought hard-earned perspective.
“I can’t hide from 0-27 but as my dear friend Ed Prohofsky said, ‘You had the best season you’ll have as a coach because you realize you’re not the one who wins games,’ ” Braziel said.
“I guess I look like a genius now, but it’s the same premise. I didn’t make any shots. I didn’t get any steals. It’s about the kids you coach and the lives you try to change, and this is a team that showed a lot of maturity toward the end of the season.”
No. 5 seed Columbia Heights (21-8) opens at 10 a.m. Wednesday against No. 4 seed Fergus Falls (25-4). Players returning from last season’s respectable 17-9 Hylanders team touted Braziel as critical to their state tournament run.
“He’s a big part of it,” junior guard Quentin Hardrict said. “He just believed in us, more than we believed in ourselves at times.”
Hardrict and fellow veteran players such as junior forward Wendell Matthews, junior guard Deundra Roberson and senior guard Airreon Austin made Braziel optimistic.
“I thought they had a lot of pieces and could be pretty good, but I would be lying if I said I predicted a state tournament,” Braziel said.
Smart and unselfish play all season warmed Braziel to the possibility.
The Hylanders edged Mahtomedi 55-53 on Jan. 5 in what became a section final preview. They later ripped off a nine-game winning streak highlighted by two victories against Tri-Metro West Conference rival Fridley.
Braziel said no fewer than three players scored in double figures in each victory.
“I have yet to coach a team that shares the ball as well as this team does,” Braziel said. “And their ability to handle the ball is where success starts in high school basketball because you don’t turn it over as often.”
Hardrict said bonds built over time produced victories.
“We’ve been playing together since freshman year so me, Deundra, Wendell — we’ve got a lot of chemistry,” Hardrict said. “We just connect.”
Even newcomers such as senior guard Khadeem Thomas, who transferred from Park Center, got into the flow. His older brother, Jacob, played in two consecutive finals at Columbia Heights without reaching a tournament.
“He’s pretty jealous, I can’t lie,” said Thomas, adding his team’s depth is the difference.
“On his team you only had to watch one or two people. With our team, you have to watch our whole starting lineup.”