History made in the middle of a pandemic: The 2021 Varsity Boys

History made in the middle of a pandemic: The 2021 Varsity Boys
  • Athletics
  • Outside the Classroom
  • Upper Division
Matan Halzel

Pictured from left to right: (Top row - Head Coach Michael Foonberg, Assistant Coach Todd Tyrell, Avi Friedman, Ilan Schinagel, Keenan Winnerman, Jonathan Noam, Andrew Zimmerman, Gavin Foonberg, Aaron Daniel, Ben Brunschwig, Noah Williamson, Assistant Coach Samuel Rotbart '10, Assistant Coach Matan Halzel '12. Bottom row - Team Captain Jonathan Kochavi, Team Captain Emmett Wechsler)

 

By Matan Halzel, Varsity Boys Basketball Assistant Coach

 

Immediately following the Tigers historic 58-36 victory in the Sweet 16, the game ball was retrieved and brought into the locker room for the whole team to sign. One message clearly stood out from the rest, from the star player Jonathan Kochavi: “Eitan started it, we finished it.” Eitan Kochavi (Class of 2020), Jon’s older brother, was the team captain and a huge part of the 2020 Varsity Boys run to the Sweet 16. And beyond that, Eitan laid down the foundation for restoring the culture of Denver JDS basketball. For his younger brother to acknowledge this on the basketball that will now live on forever, enshrined in the DJDS athletics trophy case says all you need to know about DJDS basketball. The 2021 Varsity Boys team was a true mishpacha, just like in 2020. 

In a school year filled with unknowns and uncertainty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one significant piece of normalcy that came back into our students’ lives at DJDS was the approval of a high school basketball season. Following the announcement of a high school basketball season in mid-December, the players, coaches, teachers, and school administration were thrilled to see that our students were getting the chance to play.

Everything about this season felt different. Everyone was fully aware from the very first practice that this season could vanish in the blink of an eye due to COVID-19. A single positive test result from a player or even a coach could result in the cancellation of multiple games, and potentially the forfeiture of an entire season. There were a few bumps in the road along the way, but our players understood everything that was at stake, and underclassmen respected how much this season meant to the seniors. There was a deep connection on this team which resulted in a mutual understanding among the players to achieve one common goal. Masks were worn by players, coaches, and refs at every game and practice. A limited number of students were allowed to attend each home game at DJDS from each school, and the games were livestreamed for all of our fans to watch from their homes. To top it all off, there were no district tournaments this season, and instead, there was just one 24-team State Tournament bracket. In order to qualify for the tournament, four separate ranking systems were taken into account and each team had to place within the top 24 teams in order to qualify. This set up for the most competitive regular season in 1A basketball history. 

The 2021 basketball season was truly unlike any other. The season began on January 18th, and teams were only given a week to practice before games started on January 25th. There were so many unknowns about how games would be played and conducted right until the tip-off of our Tigers’ first game against Vail Christian. I remember looking around our gym before the first whistle was blown, trying to comprehend that this season was really happening and that this game was taking place. There were 12 DJDS students in the stands - the new normal for this season - but they were a loud group for 12 kids. Even with such a small crowd, I looked around at the coaches on the bench and the excitement and anticipation to get this season started were at an all-time high. For the first time in a long time, I completely forgot that we were living in the middle of a pandemic.

The boys kicked off their season against Vail Christian in commanding fashion, securing a 61-48 win over a quality and competitive 2A opponent. Without missing a beat from the prior season, Jon Kochavi and Gavin Foonberg led the way, with 29 points and 14 rebounds and 17 points and 9 assists, respectively. Following the conclusion of the game, it was very surreal for the entire team. Over the span of an hour and a half, it felt like a big piece of normalcy had returned to our lives, and it also served as a reminder that this team was right in the thick of things for the postseason picture. From that moment on, the Varsity Boys Basketball team knew that the expectations were high for this season.

One of the more prominent moments of the season came when Senior and Team Captain, Jon Kochavi recorded a slam dunk in a game for the first time in DJDS history. The dunk occurred on February 8th against Golden View, and you can watch it below. 

 


 

At that moment, the entire team and bench were celebrating, and the coaching staff all looked at each other simultaneously and could see their smiles through their masks. That moment was simply pure bliss - for what should have a fully-packed Strear Family Gymnasium to witness history - but instead, it will remain in the video archives forever. Dunking has become a normal occurrence and even an expectation at many high schools across the country, but this dunk meant a lot to DJDS and all of the alumni who have played on this court. This dunk was a testament to Jon Kochavi’s hard work. I remember Jon attempting to dunk a basketball at his very first JV practice his freshman year, over and over again. For the record, he wasn’t even close at that practice, but he wanted to be able to dunk more than anything. Every offseason, he worked harder, and every season he improved as a player. When gyms finally opened their doors again after the first three months of the pandemic in June of 2020, Jon was ready to work, and he worked harder than ever to prepare for the 2021 basketball season. 

 

 


Jon easily cemented himself as one of the best basketball players in DJDS history, and it is truly a shame that our fans weren’t able to witness his senior season in person. Jon finished the season averaging over 20 points per game, an all-time DJDS record. In addition to that record, he averaged 10.7 rebounds per game and 1.3 blocks per game, earning All 5280 League 1st-Team honors for the second year in a row. Jon was an incredible talent - a bonafide full-court weapon - who could finish at the rim better than just about anyone. He improved his three-point shooting significantly every season, he had multiple dominant moves driving to the basket, he could finish with power in the fastbreak, and he could dunk with ease by his senior year. I’m not sure if anyone has worked harder to improve and grow as a player and leader on the basketball court at DJDS than Jon Kochavi. Here is Jon dunking with two hands in our Sweet 16 game.

 


 


Following the season opener, the boys had to gear up for a very tough test in Belleview Christian led by their 6”10 sophomore, Assane Diop. To put things into perspective, Belleview Christian scored over 75 points per game in all of their games except for one, and they were defeating their opponents by an average of 30 points per game. Our Tigers managed to hold Belleview Christian to 42 points but sadly suffered a heartbreaking loss in overtime. The boys were basically willed back into the game single-handedly by a Gavin Foonberg 3-pointer barrage. Just check out this video below where the Tigers star point guard hit clutch shot after clutch shot, scoring our Tigers final 15 points of the game. 

 

 

The boys did not let this loss define their season, in fact, it was quite the opposite. Many coaches and players across the state were beginning to view Belleview as the biggest threat to win the 1A State Championship, and our Tigers just proved that they could compete with them wire to wire. That loss fueled them for the rest of the season. 

The next game that stood out during the season came against Rocky Mountain Lutheran. This was a team that the 2020 Varsity Boys team had defeated in consecutive games, including eliminating them in the first round of the district tournament, so they were hungry for some revenge. Rocky Mountain Lutheran gave our Tigers everything they had that night, and it came down to the last five seconds of the game before Gavin Foonberg drew three different defenders while driving to the hoop and passed the ball to rising Sophomore, Andrew Zimmerman for a wide-open and game-winning layup. As huge as that layup was, this was the game that reminded everyone just how vital the other Senior Team Captain, Emmett Wechsler, truly was to this team. 


On a night where Jon and Gavin did not have their best overall games, Emmett stepped up his game to lead the team with 16 points, 4 assists, and 5 steals. Emmett is the perfect example of a phenomenal player and leader who may not always stand out in the box scores at the end of games, but rather by being there for his teammates and doing anything he is asked to do each and every game in order to help his team win. Emmett fit the bill perfectly as a ‘Glue-guy’, and along with Eitan Kochavi, was an integral part of changing the culture of Varsity Boys Basketball at DJDS during the last three years. A pass-first player, his playing style rubbed off on other players simply because they would watch the way he would play. You would find Emmett in his element in the high post by the free-throw line, looking to deliver a perfect in-rhythm pass to a backdoor-cutting teammate or being ready to shoot his always consistent mid-range jump shot. Emmett was an old-school and crafty player, and although speed was not in his repertoire, seeing the floor and knowing where his teammates were at all times was always part of his craft. Emmett always had a feel for his teammates and their tendencies, and he was always the vocal and comforting leader on the court and in the locker room. 

The last quarter of the regular season was hands down the most interesting stretch. It began with a tough loss to a very talented Mile High Academy team who also made it to the Great 8 this season, and then things got even tougher following that loss. Both of the starting guards (Gavin Foonberg and Noah Williamson) had to quarantine for 14 days due to contact tracing protocols, which left the team with some big holes to fill. 

Heading into their next game, a division matchup with Shining Mountain, the team didn’t really know what to expect. The combination of Gavin and Noah accounted for roughly 50 - 75% of the team’s assists each game, so a lot of playmaking needed to be replaced with hardly any time to prepare. Our Tigers ended up winning that game 41-39, a neck and neck game the whole way through. Nothing about that game was pretty, but our Tigers returned to their roots - out-rebounding their opponent. They outrebounded Shining Mountain 40-26 and they ground out an ugly win while missing two key players. Immediately following that game, there was a feeling of relief in the locker room, but also a sense of worry and concern among the players and coaches. Our Tigers’ season was officially at a crossroads, with a much tougher opponent in Denver Waldorf up next.

The last time our Tigers faced Denver Waldorf, they punched their ticket into the 2020 District Championship by defeating them in the second round of the district tournament on their own court. Our Tigers came ready to play that night, and they came ready to play in that same gym about a year later. The team had to figure out their offensive identity until Gavin and Noah could return to playing. That’s where Sophomore, Ilan Schinagel, and Freshman, Keenan Winnerman rose to the occasion and stepped up their game. Ilan elevated his game on offense, channeling his inner Emmett Wechsler or what his teammates term as ‘Jokic’. The game of basketball began slowing down rapidly for Ilan with the ball in his hands, and he showed poise and patience with his 5 assists that game, which effectively replaced Gavin’s playmaking. Ilan also hit some big-time 3 pointers and jump shots when our Tigers needed them most. Keenan was strong with the ball on offense and he played the best defensive game of his life, guarding Denver Waldorf’s star player the entire game and held him to 7 points. Keenan proved in one game that he was capable of being a lockdown defender in this league. Combine these two players' efforts with Jonathan and Andrew’s combined 47 of the team’s total 53 points, and our Tigers made a statement in that game. They let everyone know that they were about to make a run after a shorthanded 53-43 victory. 


Our Tigers final two games were blowout victories with the boys scoring 70+ total points scored in each game against DAT and Beth Eden. After ending the regular season on a high note with Gavin and Noah rejoining the team, all the team could do was wait for the 24-team state tournament bracket to be announced. To everyone’s delight, our Tigers were awarded the #8 overall seed, earning a first-round bye and an automatic Sweet 16 bid for the first time in school history. Much to everyone’s surprise, the #24 seed Rocky Mountain Lutheran pulled off the upset against the #9 seed Briggsdale in the first round. Facing Briggsdale would have made for a very entertaining Sweet 16 rematch, but instead, for the second year in a row, our Tigers had to face off against Rocky Mountain Lutheran for the second time in the season. 

Unlike the first time these two teams faced one another, this game had a much different narrative from the tipoff. Our Tigers knew they had the opportunity to make history and advance to the Great 8 for the first time ever, and they could do it on their home court. The energy and ruach were clear from the very first minute, and our Tigers scored 27 points in the first quarter - a DJDS record. This was the game where everyone realized just how special of a player Gavin Foonberg really was. Gavin’s stat-line of 24 points, 7 assists, and only 2 turnovers does not do him true justice - because if you watched that game, it was clear that Gavin was playing at a level that was simply unmatched by any of his opponents. Gavin’s ball-handling and playmaking ability were on full display, featuring crossovers and double and triple-teams that resulted in made baskets or last-second in-rhythm assists to wide-open teammates. To play the kind of game that he played as a sophomore on the biggest stage was just next-level stuff. Gavin thrived off of playing his best basketball in the most crucial moments of the entire season, which is a trait that few past DJDS players ever possessed. That Sweet 16 game was his stage the entire night, and you can watch some of the highlights from it below. 

 

 

The feeling in that locker room after the victory was indescribable. It almost didn’t feel real during the game since it took place in our own gym instead of a fully packed neutral site gym at a 5A school. But after the game when the game ball was secured and everyone gathered in the locker room, the team erupted in celebration, fully realizing what they just accomplished. Unlike every other RMHA and DJDS team in the past that was in this same exact moment but fell short, these boys were ready to make history and be remembered forever. 

Unfortunately, this incredible postseason run came to a crashing halt in the Great 8. There is no way to dance around it, watching that Great 8 game against the #1 overall seed, Belleview Christian was one of the toughest games I have ever had to witness. It hurt to watch because our Tigers fully executed Coach Michael Foonberg’s gameplan, and they got to take the open shots that we wanted. But it hurt even more because our Tigers were the only team in the entire state of Colorado that competed with Belleview Christian the entire season - taking them to overtime the first time these two teams faced off. 

This Great 8 game was a completely different story, and as Coach Foonberg put it so bluntly following our 63-27 defeat: “That outcome would happen 1 time out of 100 times from playing that team.” I firmly believe that he was right. Sometimes in the game of basketball, you can see the littlest things the first few minutes of the game, and you know that your team may be in for a long night. 3 of the first 4 of our Tigers shots rimmed in and out of the hoop at the beginning of the game, and that was a sign of what was to come the rest of the game. Our Tigers had 3 total points scored at the end of the first half, and they could not buy a basket. There also simply isn’t much you can do with the 6”10 point forward, Assane Diop, who is already turning into one of the top college prospects in the entire state of Colorado as a sophomore. It’s difficult to guard a player as tall and talented as Assane, but it’s also near impossible to drive to the basket successfully with a player of his caliber protecting the rim. 4A and 5A teams in most states have the size and the athletes to compete with or bother a player like Assane, but there is simply nothing that just about any 1A team can do with a player as talented as Assane. Assane was dominant in the Great 8, with 16 points, 18 rebounds, and 7 assists. Assane would go on to become the top 1A player in Colorado and Belleview would go on to win the State Championship, completely dominating the defending state champion, De Beque, beating them 69-35. 

1 out of 100 times. It stings, but it’s so true. But that Great 8 loss will not be what defines this team. What people will remember is all of the joy and pride that this team brought to this school and community in the middle of a time that was very challenging and bleak for many of us. This pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, I don't think anyone would object to that. This team brought me, Coach Michael Foonberg, Assistant Coach Todd Tyrell (Todd the Wizard), and Assistant Coach Samuel Rotbart (Class of 2010), a distraction, and even more a passion, for about two months. It provided the DJDS and Denver Jewish community with some much-needed entertainment and joy. This team will be defined by hard work, selflessness, a Great 8 appearance, a real brotherhood, and as being a true mishpacha. 

What stood out to me the most about this team was how interconnected everyone was. Especially after losing 3 crucial seniors from the 2020 Sweet 16 team, these boys clamped down, worked hard, and created even stronger bonds than the year before. There was a true sense of community and belonging on this team, from the bench players to the assistant coaches. I wouldn’t trade that for anything, and I bet every player on this team would say the same thing. 

Though I am beyond thankful that this season was able to happen, I wish that we could have packed the Strear Family Gymnasium with our fans every home game to witness how special this 2021 Varsity team was. Every dunk, every three-pointer, and every ankle-breaking crossover would have led to oohs and aahs, cheering, and even roaring from our crowds. So my hope is that by the beginning of next season in January of 2022, that you all will be able to witness yet another talented and competitive Varsity team in our gym once again. 

Next year’s team will be headlined by star point guard Gavin Foonberg, and I don’t think our school has ever had the privilege of having a player like Gavin. Gavin alone is a reason to come and cheer on the Varsity Boys in person next year, and while opponents in our district will probably already have written us off as a contender next year due to Jon and Emmett graduating, I see things quite differently. I believe that the contender window is still wide open due to Gavin alone, but there are a ton more players who are ready to take their individual games to the next level. Andrew Zimmerman, a left-handed post player, took tremendous strides as a player this season, and I think he will make the jump to become even more talented next season. Then there are seniors Noah Williamson - a speedy and crafty left-handed guard and elite perimeter defender, Avi Friedman - a rugged and talented defender and an energetic player, and Chase Coughlan - a truly unique player with the combination of his size and skillset, and who will be ready to give his last season his absolute all. Keenan Winnerman and Ilan Schinagel will be asked to continue to pick up where they left off and to grow even more as players and leaders on both ends of the court, and there is room for a lot of potential for them both. Last but not least, Aaron Daniel may be ready to pick up right where Jon Kochavi left off - dunking in games, but as a sophomore. Aaron and so many other players could be ready to make huge jumps next season as players.

So come January 6th, 2022 as our Tigers kick off their season against DAT, I expect to see our DJDS community and mishpacha reunite in a jam-packed and rocking Strear Family Gymnasium. Because next season will be about more than playing and enjoying the game of basketball - it will be about sharing these experiences together and making memories as a community again, and remembering how it feels to start getting back to what we all remember as normal.

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