Greg Haagsma spent the last 23 years building Valley Christian’s boys basketball program into a powerhouse at the 3A level.
Haagsma led Valley Christian to eight title games during his tenure as head basketball coach, winning six championships. The Trojans’ most recent title came last season, when they beat Pusch Ridge in the championship game.
Nearly a year later, Haagsma once again has Valley Christian on track to win a state title. But he doesn’t believe this year’s team has reached its full potential despite a 16-2 record through 18 games.
“We aren’t there yet,” Haagsma said. “Playing against teams like Scottsdale Christian and Paradise Honors again later in the year, those are really good defensive teams. We have to learn how to share the ball, play at their pace and get quality shots against better defense.”
Paradise Honors, a 3A power itself in Surprise, is the only Arizona-based team that beat Valley Christian so far this season. The Trojans’ only other loss came against Hurricane from Utah in December at the Lake Powell Holiday Classic.
Even leading up to the blowout loss against Paradise Honors, Haagsma said he didn’t exactly like what he saw from his team. Lacking in size compared to last year’s state-championship squad, the Trojans struggled with rebounding on both ends of the floor.
“We have a lot of guys that can put the ball in the hole,” Haagsma said. “When we focus on the fact we have to move it to the open guy and keep the ball moving, we are a really good team. We have to continue to develop chemistry.”
Valley Christian’s game against Bourgade Catholic was one of the Trojans’ most complete games this season. They dominated both ends of the floor, gathering rebounds and finding open shooters along the perimeter and in the paint.
The team showed its effort to build chemistry with one another was coming along, which presents a dangerous scenario for upcoming opponents.
Much of this chemistry stemmed from Haagsma’s efforts to get younger players involved in the program early on. It also comes with the bond formed by players during club and summer league tournaments rubbing off on the rest of the team.
“A lot of these players were on JV last year, but we practiced together and against each other all the time,” Valley Christian senior Logan Phillips said. “It’s basically like they come in knowing how we play. They already know what to do. They adapt well being at the next level.”
Phillips, a 6-foot-7 guard, was the only non-senior starter on last year’s championship team. As a junior, he led the team in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game. He picked up where he left off last season, as he leads Valley Christian with a staggering 24.1 points per game average.
Four other players average at least 7.5 points or more a game for the Trojans, including Shane Haagsma, Greg’s son. Jackson Risi, who transferred into the program this past summer from Desert Vista, also plays a key role despite sitting out half the season due to the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s transfer rule.
Risi brought a different mentality to the Valley Christian program having come from a one among the favorites to win the 6A title this season. While the competition may not be the same as he had become accustomed to in the state’s biggest conference, he still has aspirations to move on to the next level.
For this reason, he plans on bringing the same level of intensity every night he steps out onto the court.
“I’m still hungry. I still want to get looks for college,” Risi said. “I just try to bring it whenever I can. I can’t just chill yet. I still have things I want to accomplish.”
Risi decided to transfer shortly after his junior season at Desert Vista ended. Along with feeling he may benefit from a small-school environment, he wanted to have the ability to express his faith. Valley Christian offered that opportunity.
Teammates and other students at Valley Christian welcomed Risi with open arms in the summer, when he began practicing with the basketball program. Fitting in was easy, especially given the relationship he had already begun to build with Phillips in summer ball just a year before.
“One of the reasons I came to Valley was because of [Phillips] and his family,” Risi said. “We got to know each other better and I felt like I already knew some people here. It made the transition really easy.”
Risi’s impact was felt right away both in practice and the last two games, when he was finally able to suit up. He scored 14 points in Valley Christian’s loss to Paradise Honors. He scored another 12 against Bourgade Catholic.
“He just doesn’t miss,” Phillips said of Risi. “That opens up the floor for everyone. He can also attack off the dribble. He’s a playmaker and it really helps.”
Valley Christian is currently ranked third in the 3A Conference, according to the AIA. With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Trojans have set themselves up to clinch home court for most of the postseason should they win out the rest of the way.
But Haagsma and the players know that isn’t an easy task, especially in region play with a matchup against Paradise Honors awaiting in February. But as long as they continue to play together as they recently have, they’re confident they can make yet another run and defend their state title.
“We talk about energy and effort in the locker room,” Phillips said. “That’s what makes us play better in every single way.
“If we just continue to have energy whether it’s a blowout or a really close game, we will be fine.”