- Outside the Classroom
- Upper Division
By Matan Halzel, Varsity Assistant Coach
If you had the opportunity to watch this year’s DJDS Varsity Boys Basketball team, I’m willing to bet you were eager to watch them play again. The reason is simple - this team genuinely knew how to play the game of basketball the right way and they had fun doing it. This team loved to share the basketball and always made the extra pass. As you watched these boys play, you quickly realized that their style of play was contagious, as was their genuine bond - a true brotherhood. It was impossible to not like this team as a basketball enthusiast or fan.
The 2020 Varsity Boys had a little bit of everything - a deep roster filled with phenomenal passers and great personalities, a brotherly duo unlike any other our school has ever seen, and a father and son living their dream (over a decade in the making) as a high school coach and rising star player. It took a little while for things to get rolling, and it took some time for many fans to realize that this team was for real. But when they kicked their conference play off on January 14th with an epic 58-45 win over our rivals and defending district champions Mile High Academy, there was a serious buzz about this team.
I have been the Assistant Coach for the Varsity Boys Basketball team for the past four seasons now. After that victory over Mile High, I had a strong feeling that this team was the one that would make history for our school. Let me tell you the story (the long version) of how this incredible team almost made that happen. They deserve to have it told.
Almost three years ago, I walked into the Strear Family Gymnasium to watch the 2017 DJDS Varsity Boys Basketball team play an early-season game. Almost immediately a DJDS freshman caught my eye as he soared above two players nearly twice his size to grab an offensive rebound, landing on the ground with a big grin on his face. That freshman was Eitan Kochavi. The more I watched Eitan during that game, I knew I had to get involved with the Varsity team. I approached Head Coach Michael Foonberg, went to a couple of practices, helped out with a couple of games, and the rest is history.
At the time, my younger brother Gilad was a junior at DJDS, and I enjoyed watching him play. I used to get excited during my senior year of college as I eagerly anticipated the Class of 2018’s senior year, purely to watch them play basketball. The Class of 2018 had a lot of talent, but with talent comes high expectations. February 2018 arrived, and two minutes into their opening-round playoff game - I sat on that bench next to Coach Foonberg in silence, knowing the game was already lost, and it was a brutal loss. In my opinion, there is no more defeating feeling while coaching, then to know deep down in your heart that on some nights, your team just doesn’t have it - even if they have the talent and even if you’ve always believed in them. That night stung more than you can imagine for the players and coaches.
But even through all of the disappointment, as I watched Eitan play, I remained optimistic and driven to continue to help coach the Varsity boys after 2018. Everywhere Eitan would go - on and off the court - you would always find him with the biggest smile in the world followed by a friendly wave. It is impossible to not like a kid like Eitan. Most people who look up Eitan’s statistics would probably assume that he is a nasty, physical, and angry basketball player simply due to his height. But Eitan is the true definition of a gentle giant, and a friend, mentor, and leader to all of his underclassmen. That was a key missing ingredient on the Varsity basketball teams for six years at this school.
During those six years, I heard about (and witnessed) a lot of Varsity players that simply didn’t connect. Sometimes it was due to a lack of leadership, other times it was due to a lack of cohesiveness and chemistry among the players. Regardless of the reason, each team folded under pressure during this stretch and it was tough to witness.
In 2018, I began coaching the DJDS Junior Varsity team, and I still remember watching Jon Kochavi and Emmett Wechsler stepping onto the court for their first game. I was immediately blown away - by Jonathan’s scoring abilities and Emmett’s passing abilities, and most noticeably that they played through each other. As I watched Eitan grow as a player and as a leader on Varsity, and after witnessing Jon and Emmett make the jump as legitimate playmakers in just one JV season, I knew the culture of the Denver JDS basketball was changing.
After coaching my first JV game, I changed my stance with my JV team with the intention of doing everything in my power to prepare those two boys for the Varsity team moving forward. I worked with Coach Foonberg to determine which parts of their game he wanted to see improvements in. We quickly formed a partnership between the two teams, and the results began to show. If you want to have a successful Varsity program for any sport at any school, player development at all levels is vital.
Fast forward to the 2019 season, and it was clear that Eitan was evolving into one of the best rebounding players in the state, that his brother Jon was a pure scorer, and that Emmett’s basketball IQ was absolutely off the charts. The best part about it all was that they were all playing through each other and growing together as basketball players.
The heart and soul of the offensive identity on the 2020 Varsity team all started with Emmett. Emmett quickly learned as a freshman that he had the ability to slow down the game around him in his mind, while every other player on the court is moving at 100 miles per hour. This quality is not something a coach can teach, it’s simply a gift. By the time Emmett was a sophomore, Emmett had the ability to dissect an entire defense, and figure out the perfect moment and angle to deliver a pass to a teammate - from anywhere on the court. I’ve never seen a player like Emmett at our school before. The more Emmett’s teammates studied him, the more they learned how to play like him. Emmett naturally exuded confidence with his offensive playing style, and it was contagious to watch. There were some plays where Emmett would stand still with the ball in one spot for 3 or 4 seconds waiting patiently while keeping his defender off of him, only to find a teammate with a remarkable pass in the smallest window leading to a wide-open layup. In the back of my mind, I knew the only pat against this style of play is that it takes time (even in the NBA) to build trust with teammates, which eventually leads to chemistry. Sadly, time ran out a little short for the 2019 Varsity team.
The 2019 Varsity team had the best on-ball defending guard in recent memory, Asher Kark. If you needed to shut down a playmaker on any opposing team, Asher was up for the challenge and he shut them down - every time. An expectation was naturally established that Eitan would grab 10+ rebounds every night by the 2019 season, because every game, Eitan would just do it. We’re talking about a 5”10 player finishing as a top-3 rebounder in our conference during his Junior and Senior season. To put things into perspective, at one point over a three-game stretch in 2019, Eitan grabbed 25, 19, and 19 rebounds. 25 rebounds in a game set a DJDS record. Again, Eitan is 5”10. Jon and Emmett were learning on the fly in 2019, never playing on Varsity prior to that season. Jon went on to average 17.9 points per game as a sophomore - another DJDS record - firmly establishing himself a legitimate scoring threat. And Emmett proceeded to become the first player in DJDS history to record a double-double (10+ in two statistical categories) with assists being one of those categories. Emmett also set a DJDS record that season by averaging 4.5 assists per game.
So how in the heck did that team not end up making a playoff run? Two words: Aly Sakho.
For those of you who attended the 2019 opening round divisional playoff game, you probably remember Aly. You probably remember when he stole a pass from our Tigers in the middle of the court and proceeded to jump from a step in front of the free-throw line and dunk with two hands with ease leaving our home gym stunned and dead silent as he erupted for 37 points and brought yet another Tigers season to a brutal end. The Tigers gave it their all that night, but there is nothing you could do with the 6”8 forward from Senegal, Aly Sakho, who in my opinion is without question the best player to ever play in our school’s conference.
The road leading up to this past Saturday night was not easy. It was filled with ups and downs and three straight opening-round division playoff exits - all on our home court. All three of those losses were immediately followed by a locker room meeting filled with long faces, tears, and one repeated line to Eitan from senior players - “Please don’t let this happen to you.” Eitan wasn’t about to forget what Aly did to him on his home court to end his junior year season, but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. Eitan, Jon, and Emmett all knew they had to work on their individual games, but they knew they were going to need some help.
That’s where the depth of the 2020 Varsity boys comes in - specifically seniors David Rafailov and Elan Perryman, sophomores Chase Coughlan and Noah Williamson, and the long-awaited freshman prospect and coaches son, Gavin Foonberg. What 2020 Varsity boys lost in Asher Kark, they gained in David Rafailov. David is an incredible athlete and a true competitor, and I felt as I watched him play on the DJDS soccer teams that I needed to convince him to play Varsity basketball his senior year. I talked with David about it for two years, and in August of 2019, he told me he was fully committed. He gave it his all with his defense every game this season, and you could hardly tell this was the first year he played competitive basketball in his life. Soccer IQ translating to Basketball IQ is a real thing, and it really showed with David. He wanted to win.
Elan brought incredible poise and experience to this team, and he was hands down the best driver on the team, capable of finishing a layup with either hand while going full speed at the basket. Elan was also fearless of anyone that guarded him, grabbing three or four offensive rebounds on single possessions multiple times this season. Chase and Noah brought a competitive edge to this team as well. Chase was a true bulldog post-player off the bench who played his best basketball on both ends of the court as the season progressed, and Noah brought an element of speed and craft at the guard position on both ends of the court that our Varsity team had been lacking for years.
And finally, there’s Gavin. I remember back in 2012 while sitting on the Varsity bench as a player, looking across the gym by the bleachers watching Gavin - as a 2nd grader at DJDS - dribbling a basketball through his tiny legs at full speed at every possible angle. It was truly a sight to behold, and there was never a moment where you could spot Gavin without a basketball in his hands. But where there was optimism about the player he could one day become, there were also serious doubts.
Shortly after Gavin was born, he was diagnosed with Shone's Complex; a rare congenital heart disease. Gavin received two open-heart surgeries before he turned three years old. However, despite all of the complications and all of the doctors telling Gavin he would never be able to do anything as physically enduring as basketball, he defied the odds.
Gavin is the essence of perseverance and never EVER giving up on your dreams no matter how many people try to tell you “You can’t.” Those words just don’t exist in Gavin’s vocabulary, and he is a true role model. I watched him dominate stretches of games throughout the season in three different ways: his ball-handling, his passing, and clutch shooting. In his freshman year alone, Gavin became the youngest player in DJDS history to dish out 10 assists in a game and set a DJDS record with 86 assists during the entire season. As a freshman. As talented of a shooter as Gavin is, I find myself frequently in awe of his court vision and passing. Watching him and Emmett sharing the ball together is a sight to behold. It’s easy to see that Gavin has been working on his game his entire life, and it’s easy to see how the 2020 Varsity boys rallied behind the long-awaited point guard. Just watch this highlight.
I’ve painted a detailed picture of this squad because they all had something to bring to the table. Every player brought a different ingredient and element to this team. Each player made massive contributions each night, and if even one of them was missing for a game, the results showed. But taking it even a step further, every single player on this team would tell you that this team was mentally tough and truly a mishpacha. Every player had each other’s back, there was always someone to pick up a player when they were down, and when one element of one player’s game wasn’t working, these boys would plug their heads together and find other ways to win. It was a true brotherhood, and the brotherhood extended to the coaching staff.
Coach Foonberg had the deepest coaching staff he has ever had in 2020. He had three assistant coaches: myself, ‘Todd the Wizard’, and Daniel Bush (Class of 2015). The coaching staff was its own mishpacha, and we knew how to adapt and make mid-game adjustments better than anyone in our district. We made each other and the team better by running ideas off of each other, the players knew that they could always rely on us for help or advice. Coach Foonberg has 14 years of coaching experience as the head coach at DJDS, and he led the postseason run for the 2020 Varsity Boys - a team with zero postseason experience.
The most remarkable statistic of this team is that three players on this team averaged three assists or more per game. It is rare for 1A high school teams to have even one player that does so, but our Tigers had three. Eitan, Emmett, and Gavin put on passing clinics on a nightly basis, leading to “ooh’s” and “aah’s” from the crowd. Jon averaged 1.9 assists per game and David and Elan thrived with delivering passes on backdoor cuts. The way this team moved the basketball is the way that the game is supposed to be played. It took a couple of years for this offensive style to fully evolve, but the players were determined to make it work and the product showed as the team averaged 14.8 assists per game this season.
Coach Foonberg built his trademark through defense. His best teams during his coaching tenure have been defensive nightmares for his opponents. Defense does indeed win championships - and this team was also a great defensive team - but I think Coach Foonberg would agree with me that our school has never seen a team with an offensive identity like the 2020 Varsity Boys. Beyond the selfless ball movement and passing, the Kochavi brothers formed the best rebounding duo DJDS has ever seen. In fact, Eitan led the entire state of Colorado 1A basketball in offensive rebounds. Rebounding was a huge part of this team’s identity, as was having a pure and elite scorer - Jon Kochavi, who set the all-time DJDS record with 18.3 points per game and made the All-District 1st Team this season.
Three moments from this season stood out to me the most: 1. Eitan’s buzzer-beating game-winning shot in Elbert, which was the only basket he made the whole game. 2. Defeating Mile High to kick off district play in what I thought was their most complete game of the whole season. 3. Defeating Aly Sakho and #1 Seed Denver Waldorf in the second round of the district playoffs on their home court - to secure a spot in the Regional Tournament for the first time in six years.
Though our Tigers went on to fall just short in the District Championship Game to Mile High Academy, and though they also fell just short against Briggsdale in the Sweet 16, this team still made history. They did defeat Idalia in the Regional Semifinal, securing the first Regionals victory in our school’s history. A couple of good bounces and a couple of made three-point shots and this team would have advanced to the Elite 8 for the first time in our school’s history. This team was down 34-20 to Briggsdale late in the first half, but they were resilient and came storming back to take a 37-35 lead early in the second half. It felt like a narrative that was just too good to be true. Briggsdale had all of the momentum, but our Tigers sucked the life out of their team and fans on that 17-1 run and they were suddenly so, so close. But costly turnovers and shots that just didn’t fall in the 4th quarter led to the end of this season. A team comprised of players with no postseason experience almost pulled off the impossible, and what a fun ride it was. I think it happened because this whole team was connected. This really was a mishpacha. Every time Tyler Weitzenfeld, Andrew Zimmerman, or Isaac Makovsky scored a basket, the entire team was genuinely excited and celebrated.
Millions of fans around the world constantly debate the best NBA teams and players of all-time across generations. I find these debates and conversations fascinating because even though people are so passionate about their opinions, there are no correct answers. While DJDS alum, parents, teachers, and fans can reminisce about the best DJDS Varsity Basketball teams in our school’s history, I will always voice that this was the most complete team. Not the most talented, not the best-ever, but they were hands-down the most complete. From top to bottom, on defense and on offense, the 2020 Varsity Boys could throw a multitude of offensive and defensive strategies your way. Every player in the lineup was interchangeable because that’s how wide our players’ skillsets were.
So why tell this story for a team that came so close to advancing to the Elite 8 but didn’t? Because I have a connection with these kids, and they are down to earth and good kids. Many of you know me as a guy who handles Communication and Marketing at Denver Jewish Day School. What many of you don’t know is the second I leave my desk and my workday is over, I pour my heart and soul out for these boys on the basketball court for nine months during the year. I’ve watched some of these kids grow on and off the basketball court for four years, and I've worked with many of them for countless hours to help further develop their games. I feel like I’ve become part of this DJDS Varsity Basketball mishpacha. I’m very passionate about watching them grow and succeed as basketball players and then watching so many of those leadership and life skills translate into other facets of life.
For three years, these boys came up short. I saw the aggravation and frustration on many of their faces on a gloomy February evening. I saw the yearning to know what it felt like to be a great team and to reach the regionals. This year, these boys got it done, and these boys are turning into fine young men. The 2020 Varsity Boys had all of the right ingredients to make this run, and I’m not surprised in the least.
There’s also even more reason for optimism because the future is very bright for next year’s team. Jon Kochavi alone is enough of a reason for everyone to come out and support this team next year. There is no one I’ve encountered in my entire life that wants something more than Jon Kochavi wanting to go to the Elite 8. Jon eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball, and he is about to put in the work this offseason to become an even better player.
Beyond that, Emmett, Gavin, and the rest of this year’s underclassmen have so much upside, and now that they have the postseason and regional experience, who knows what next season will bring. Coach Foonberg will also be embarking on his 15th season of coaching DJDS Varsity basketball, and the second consecutive year with his son, Gavin. I hope you all come out to support this team next year because I promise you they will be just as much fun to watch. They need their fans to support them! Every time our fans showed up in volume, it made a huge difference for the team. The fans are the sixth man on the court when they show up in volume, and this season the fans were definitely connected to the team.
“This team has brought ruach and energy in our hallways and has galvanized our community in a way that I have never seen,” said Upper Division Principal, Jason Snyder. “Not only has our team been successful on the court, but our boys also play the game the right way. They share the ball and are tough-minded in a way that's easy to support.”
I don’t think Mr. Snyder could have said it any better. The 2020 Varsity Boys ignited an entire school and Jewish community. That is something special, and I believe the ruach will stay alive in 2021.
Even though this team fell short to an incredible Briggsdale team in the Sweet 16 last Saturday night, nothing can break the bond of the 2020 DJDS Varsity Boys Basketball team. Just look at these smiles in the locker room after the season ended:
I will always remember this team.