Harrel credits former CHCS head coach with preparing him for lead role

Feb. 28—College Heights Christian School topped Blue Eye 61-51 on Tuesday night to advance into the Class 2 state quarterfinals. It is the second time the boys basketball program has made it that far in the postseason in the last three years.

CHCS has a head coach in his first season at the helm after spending some time coaching at the college level.

Stephen Harrel spent some time at area junior colleges that included Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami, Oklahoma; Labette Community College and then Coffeyville Community College in Southeast Kansas, where he was the head coach of the women's team. Overall, he spent over 10 years coaching at the collegiate level.

His first gig was as an assistant under Dustin Grover at NEO.

The 38-year-old came over to the area in the 2019-20 season and was originally named the baseball coach. But, word got around that he had played college basketball and coached a little at the college level, and then-head coach Eric Johnson invited him to sit on the bench and help out when he was able.

That turned into Harrel being Johnson's assistant for the next three years and he is thankful for that opportunity with Johnson.

"Coach Johnson was a great coach and he was a great mentor when it came to me adjusting to high school," Harrel said. "There's just a difference when you move from that level to this level."

At the end of that first year of Harrel helping out, CHCS implemented a pressure defense that came from him. He saw length and athleticism that could be used in different ways if the team could put together a full-court press. Johnson let him have that freedom to work on the defense on his own.

That defense stuck and hasn't went anywhere since. Now he and his defense are playing at 2 p.m. Saturday at Ozark Christian College against Hartville.

Jokingly, Johnson said he let Harrel have control of the defense because it's "harder anyways."

Harrel said he always felt included when he was on the bench with Johnson. From helping out and being able to look into the schemes for offense and defense to being able to connect with the players.

"I wasn't just an assistant coach who kept stats," Harrel said.

That inclusion allowed the newcomer to gain confidence as a coach at the prep level for three years before taking the reins this season.

"I give all praise to coach Johnson for letting me get my feet wet and get comfortable," Harrel said.

Johnson still works with the school after retiring last year. He helps by substituting in the classroom when needed and sometimes driving a bus. He talked this week about what he's seen from the team in his first season off of the sidelines and into the stands. Specifically, he talked about what he saw in Harrel.

"We knew all along what his capabilities were and his ability to inspire the kids," Johnson said. "And his coaching philosophy was good."

Johnson added that he is "happy for (Harrel) and the kids" after their slow start to the season at 5-6 overall.

"He's had good patience as the young kids got their experience," Johnson said. "I talked with him earlier this year and told him to just keep working at it and they have kept working at it."

Johnson included that the patience has led to the sophomores on the team not really playing like sophomores as they've gained that experience.

Parts of Harrel's coaching philosophy that stand out to his former mentor are his ability to have a knowledge of how to adjust after watching other teams play and knowing how to attack the opposition. He likes that Harrel has played a rotation of eight, nine and sometimes 10 players this year.

"We didn't have that luxury last year," Johnson said.

Last, the 73-year-old retired coach believes that the first-year leader has done a good job of letting his guys play with some freedom and he's seen this group become one of the better passing teams he's been around. That may have sparked the added offensive production that Johnson said he's seen this year.

Harrel calls his time with Johnson a "great partnership" or "a match made in heaven."

"He means everything to me. I still call him 'boss' to this day," Harrel added. "He don't like it. ... I still tell him he can come sit on the end of the bench. He doesn't want to... I would still like him to come sit with me on the bench but he's up there in the VIP (press and staff seating at complex) cheering us on."