Home » The transition game: GJ’s Dutch Johnson leads Tigers back to state basketball playoffs

The transition game: GJ’s Dutch Johnson leads Tigers back to state basketball playoffs

Dutch Johnson knows the transition game.

He knows transition as a noun and a verb.

But his transition skill set was challenged to the max this season, starting with a shockingly late start but ending with a run into the Sweet 16 of the Class 5A state tournament for the Grand Junction High School boys basketball team.

“The group of kids returning made the transition easier,” said Johnson, who transitioned from college assistant coach back to high school head coach in September.

“It was awkward timing for everybody … with all of it going down in September,” Johnson said. “It took an open mindset on their part and my part. But really, it’s been great — a lot of fun.”

Despite missing summer team camps, Johnson returned to the helm of the Grand Junction basketball program where he had coached for some 10 years before joining the men’s basketball staff at Colorado Mesa University.

“It had been a while since I had taught the game,” Johnson said, detailing his college coaching responsibilities — scouting, video reviews, game preparation, etc.

“There is a size and speed difference with the players,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, it’s basketball. I really wanted to get back to the teaching part.”

Fortunately, he added, he drew a mature group of players at Grand Junction High School.


The Tigers started the season cautiously, putting together six wins and only three losses. Throughout the schedule, Johnson’s Tigers played a bevy of close games.

Eventually, they moved into state playoff position — solidified with an emotional 43-32 victory over rival Central in the final regular-season game played in the historic GJHS gymnasium.

The ultimate result was a No. 11 seed in the Class 5A state tournament bracket and a 15-8 record that included three losses to unbeaten, Class 6A No. 1 seed Fruita Monument.

That opened the doors for one more game at the fabled GJHS gym, a Wednesday night state playoff opener against visiting Denver North.

The Tigers overpowered the Vikings, blitzing to a 29-14 lead midway through the second quarter.

At the conclusion of the 76-43 playoff victory, Johnson went to each individual Grand Junction player — offering a handshake, a hug and a few words for each.

The Tigers (16-8) advanced to today’s Sweet 16 showdown at No. 6 seed Lewis-Palmer (18-6), a 72-43 winner over Central on Wednesday.

“Our body of work during the season is what got us a home playoff game,” Johnson said. “I thought an 11-seed was well-deserved. Then, to have that last regular-season win and this playoff win in the old gym, I think, is a cool way to send it out.”

Johnson, ever the coach, credited the Tigers’ defense for the fast start against Denver North.

“No. 1, I thought we guarded well again,” Johnson said. “And No. 2, we obviously had the advantage in the paint and at the basket.”

Will Applegate, working inside, led all scorers with 30 points in the final curtain-call basketball game in the Grand Junction gym.

“We were able to get the ball inside to him and he finished everything,” Johnson said, adding that he was pleased to find playing time for his full roster in the state playoff game.

Johnson, a longtime physical education teacher at GJHS, said the team’s success into the Sweet 16 is a tribute to the players — “it’s been a pretty tight-knit group all season.

“They practice their butts off every day, and they play so hard,” he said, reviewing his intense practice regimen. “They want to be coached.”

His players, to an individual, focused intently on the head coach during timeouts, capturing every word.


Johnson jokingly said the players have to listen closely during timeouts “because our band is so loud.”

Senior Brett Woytek said the team’s focus and concentration — during intense games — is a carryover from practice.

“Every day in practice it is practically a game,” Woytek said. “We’re going 5-on-5. We’re treating (practice) like a playoff game in and of itself.”

Echoing his coach’s philosophy, defense, he said, starts the winning process for the Tigers.

“This whole year, our motto has been to play tough on D and turn that into offense,” Woytek said. “Tonight, we got good transition buckets.”

He said the Tigers prepared for a tough opponent and then rode the energy and enthusiasm of a vocal student crowd.


“Our student section was awesome tonight,” the 6-5 senior said.

He credited Johnson with putting the pieces together for the state-playoff run by the Tigers.

“Coach Johnson does a great job. We’ve all grown up together,” he said, adding that during game timeouts the team refocuses on the task at hand. “A timeout … is a mental refresher for us.”

The players also take pride in supporting each other, Woytek said.

“All of us cheer for each other. One through 12, it’s the same … intensity, the same energy.”

Just one year ago, Johnson was coaching in arenas like Whalen Gymnasium at Fort Lewis College, Plachy Hall at Adams State, the Donald E. Young Center in Spearfish, S.D., and Paul Wright Gymnasium in Gunnison.

But this year, Johnson (a former player at Colorado Mesa) led his basketball team into high school gymnasiums in Montrose, Durango, Palisade, Fruita, Battle Mountain, Eagle Valley — and now over to Monument for the Sweet 16 contest against Lewis-Palmer.

Watching his players celebrate this week’s playoff win over Denver North reinforced his move back to high school coaching, according to Johnson.

“These are fun. All day long wasn’t fun,” Johnson said, acknowledging his own pregame jitters. “But to see the kids all excited like this, that’s why we do this.”