In his first season as the varsity head coach and head of Trinity Christian Academy basketball, Cliff Willis led a combination of youth and experience to the best season the team has had since 2015-2016 when the Conquerors reached the region final. The Conquerors came off three consecutive seasons of five or fewer wins before Coach Willis took the helm in the fall of 2021.
Although their record was 7-18, the 2021-2022 Conquerors began the process of building themselves back into strong competitors by playing mostly tight games and getting some large-margin wins. Thirteen losses were by 10-point or smaller margins, and three of the wins were by 20+ points. Coach Willis was proud of the improvement he saw on the court all season. “This year we won as many games as in the previous two years combined,” he proclaimed.
The season started with a big 52-28 win over Beaches Chapel, and five of the next six games were all within six points or fewer. A grueling overtime win over Stanton followed before the Conquerors battled three of Jacksonville’s toughest teams. TCA soon after won three of five against more tough competition and ended the season playing five Jacksonville powerhouses.
The toughest opponents were Bishop Kenny, Orange Park, Sandalwood, and Ribault. The biggest wins came against Middleburg, Terry Parker, and Mandarin.
Overall, this is the 12th year in which Coach Willis has worked with TCA basketball. He coached the JV team for 8 years and assisted 4 previous coaches with varsity for 11 years. He had a small but knowledgeable staff that worked with him and gained the players’ respect. Coach Willis had this to say about his staff.
• Troy Jackson - “Troy played for me for four years when he attended TCA. This was Troy's first year as JV coach, and it was obvious ‘The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.’ His father, Carl Jackson, was my first head coach. Troy did a fantastic job and instantly earned his team’s trust and respect. Troy is still undecided about returning to coach next year.”
• Alex Gruzzo - “Alex served as my student intern in the first semester, and I recognized immediately that he would be a great assistant. This was his first year coaching basketball. Alex filmed our varsity games and did a wonderful job handling so many of the crucial behind-the-scenes needs that every head coach has. Thankfully, he plans to return next year as my assistant.”
Coach Willis entered the season with what he called extremely lofty expectations in his first year. “We had 8 seniors, and our roster included a total of 14 football players between varsity and junior varsity. This was the highest participation level from football in my 12 years at TCA.”
The players expected to perform well, and they did. “We knew we were going to compete in every single game,” said Coach Willis.
“There was only one contest that we were not within single digits in the fourth quarter,” Coach Willis explained. “We competed with some of the best teams in the city from start to finish. Unfortunately, we struggled with turnovers, and in many instances, we couldn't overcome the mistakes.”
Of course, with the football team playing for a state championship well into the basketball season, Coach Willis had to use mainly a JV roster for his varsity games for the first semester of play. “I LOVE my football guys. I want as many of them to play as possible. The football players typically play football into mid-December, so we don't have our full team together until almost midseason. About the time we're getting used to each other, the season is virtually over. That's always the challenge. Such is life coaching at Trinity.”
Seniors Donavin Paris and Travis King were the leading scorers, averaging 15.5 and 11.4 points per game, respectively. “Typically, as Donavin and Travis went, so went Trinity,” said Coach Willis. Paris was also one of the leading scorers and best free throw shooters (79%) in the entire six-team district.
Senior Fred Highsmith and junior Seth Bialek led the Conquerors in rebounding nearly every game. “When they weren't there, we struggled,” said Coach Willis. Senior L.J. Kelley led the team assists and was “our toughest hard-nosed defender.” Junior Josh Robinson averaged 6.9 points per game mainly off the bench in his first year of varsity. “He provided a big spark off the bench and even started several games,” said Coach Willis.
Once he had his full roster, Coach Willis saw nothing but improvement throughout the second half of the season, especially from his juniors. “Josh and Seth showed the most improvement as the year progressed,” he said. “Josh improved tremendously as a scorer, and Seth improved in all facets with each game he played. The fact is Seth is only in his third year of basketball, so he's learning on the fly.”
Although losing eight seniors to graduation empties the roster, the talent the returning players have and those moving up from the JV team will continue to build the Conquerors into winners. “I really believe next year's team will have MORE chemistry. The returning guys are big ‘system’ guys, and I feel like they will play within that system. I'm looking forward to next season.”
One key factor in particular is the continuing work ethic and game play during the offseason. “The hope for building the varsity program is based on a higher percentage of guys participating in summer workouts,” said Coach Willis. “It's imperative for us to have more chemistry than just showing up on November 1st and seeing whom we have. I have a former player who is really invested in the program, and he will be assisting in many of the individual training sessions and workouts.”
Here is to a successful season for Coach Willis and his Conquerors. With the upcoming and returning talent and the experience gained this past season, look for the Conquerors to do some wonderful things in the years to come.