James Burns: Buhach Colony boys hoops off and running

12/15/2008 5:19 AM

12/15/2008 5:22 AM

How much has John Bliss' life changed since he took over the Buhach Colony boys basketball program?

Put it this way: He's got other people answering his calls now.

This weekend, while trying to reach Bliss for an interview, I got his "answering service."

Twice.

Son: "John, can't talk right now."

Bliss: "Tell whoever it is I'm on another line."

Son: "Uh, can I take a message?"

OK, so Bliss didn't exactly stone the Sun-Star. He really was on another line, probably making plans for the Save Mart Classic or checking other scores, but you get the point.

Right?

Eight games into his newest adventure, Bliss' phones have been ringing off the hook.

Everyone wants to know about the team, the offensive numbers and how it's all happened so quickly.

"A lot of people were skeptical," Columbia junior college men's basketball coach Nathan Rien told Bliss.

"People didn't think you could do that at Buhach Colony."

Well, he has.

Implementing the same frenetic, press-and-press-harder style that made him a wild success at Merced, Bliss has beat a pulse into a BC boys program that has been on life support for years.

Buhach Colony is 6-2 and blistering opposing defenses, averaging roughly 84 points per game.

BC has set school records for most consecutive wins (five), as well as points in a quarter (35), a half (67) and a game (97).

"I'm fortunate that I have a lot of very good kids," Bliss said. "They want to learn. They're very eager. That, obviously, is the single biggest attribute that we have as a team right now."

The success is tempered, though.

For all the optimism floating around the Thunder Dome these days, Bliss and his boys realize that they haven't won anything yet.

Buhach Colony didn't even win their own tournament, settling for a third-place finish in the Save Mart Classic after wiping out Waterford 91-75 on Saturday.

A handful of games won't define their season, Bliss said. He points to BC's body of work a season ago, when a 5-3 start by mid-December ended in a 7-20 record.

"We're still a long ways away from where I want us to be. It's a process. A work in progress," Bliss said.

"In time, I think we'll be fine. What people need to understand is that it takes time to build a program."

Building Buhach Colony has taken more than time. It's taking therapy, as well.

The physical and mental kinds.

This season could have crumbled around Bliss back in June, when the school's administration made a very difficult coaching decision, choosing Bliss over interim coach Shane Gentry.

At that point, Gentry had already earned the kids' trust, setting up camps and coaching them through summer leagues.

Then Bliss -- not Gentry -- was named the program's third head coach in five years.

The players were confused, drafting a letter to the administration seeking a voice in the hiring process.

"In the beginning, we weren't sure who would be our coach. When summer came, (Gentry) stepped up and said he wanted to coach us," said Peterson, a senior. "We were learning a lot of new things and it was fun. We all took to him.

"When we found out he wasn't going to coach us anymore, it really broke us down. It hurt.

"We weren't mad at Bliss. We just had to get over it, and eventually that's what we did."

Any animosity or resentment the players may have harbored was left in a pool of sweat in July.

Bliss called it a boot camp.

Peterson called it an awakening.

For three straight days, Bliss kept his finger on the fast forward button, running the players through a series of super-fast drills.

Call it Run-and-Gun 101.

They conducted two-hour practices twice a day, with an hour break in between for film and lunch.

In all, it was 15 hours of basketball.

"I tried to instill the mentality and approach we wanted to take," said Bliss, the general. "That training camp got us to where we are today. The style, the way we wanted to play and how we want to present ourselves on the court...

"All that came from camp."

There was more, of course.

The sweating. The running. The film work. The instruction. It all resonated with the players, who not only learned to trust a foreign system but a new coach, as well.

"Bliss did what needed to be done," Peterson said. "He showed us film about the system. He told us how many points we would average and how quick it would be.

"It was nice to see all of that, to hear all of that. No other coach at Buhach Colony has ever done that.

"I think (the administration) made a good choice."

That ain't lip service, either.

Buhach Colony has taken to Bliss.

Case in point: BC's most recent road trip, a 75-59 victory at Hughson last Tuesday night.

On two separate occasions during the ride home, the team bus erupted into laughter. Genuine laughter. The kind that makes your cheeks hurt.

Even Bliss caught a case of the giggles.

What's this all mean?

Well, it's like this...

There's no telling what the rest of the season holds for Buhach Colony. The Central California Conference appears to be one of the deepest leagues in the Valley, which means BC, though vastly improved, could find itself near the bottom again.

But the laughter, the early success, the optimism and cohesiveness suggest BC boys basketball has turned a corner under Bliss.

"Everyone expects us to be the underdogs. Believe me, it's changed," Peterson said.

"We're coming hard this year. We may lose, but we're not playing with a loser's mentality anymore."

So how has Bliss' life changed since he took over the Buhach boys basketball program?

I guess the real question is: How has Buhach Colony changed?

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at jburns@mercedsun-star.com.

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