There aren’t many physical requirements to play boys basketball at Yelm High School — first-year coach Jordan Barnes isn’t that strict — but if you don’t want to run like the Tornados run, he’ll gladly show you the door.
Barnes knows only one brand of basketball: playing fast.
“It’s every basketball player’s dream,” said senior guard Elijah Fuller, the Tornados’ leading scorer. “Our coaches let you do what you want to do and shoot when you want to shoot and not get mad at you.”
It’s true. Barnes doesn’t get too upset even if the Tornados commit a turnover “as long as we score more points,” he said.
“Kids love playing for me because I’m never going to get mad at them for a shot they take,” Barnes said. “… No shot is a bad shot.”
The Tornados’ up-tempo offense is a spinoff of “The System” coach Paul Westhead ran at Loyola Marymount from 1985-90. The goal: get a shot off within the first 12 seconds of the 35-second shot clock.
That approach is the foundation of the Tornados’ turnaround.
In a school known for its powerhouse wrestling program, boys basketball is relevant in Yelm again. The Tornados (11-7 overall, 5-5 4A Narrows) are in a three-way tie for third place with South Kitsap and Bellarmine Prep and close out the regular season against those two teams Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, with playoff-clinching games at stake. No Yelm boys team has had this much success since 2003, when then-coach Ryan Gerrits’ Yelm squad made its first state tournament appearance in nearly three decades.
In a league with multiple teams featuring multiple players 6-foot-7 or taller, Yelm had to improvise, and speed makes up for its lack of size. Sophomore Christian Davis, a lengthy 6-foot-4 wing with strong ball-handling skills, is the Tornados’ tallest player.
“I knew that we had to run,” Barnes said.
Over 18 games, Yelm averages a 4A Narrows League-best 67.8 points a game, and even scored 100 in a nonleague win over R.A. Long in December.
Fuller, a transfer from Parkland’s Washington High, where Barnes was an assistant coach before being hired at Yelm, knows what it takes to make the Tornados’ run-and-gun style of play work. It’s very nontraditional: few set plays (10 in all, Barnes said), lots of transition points, and no big men inside. The goal is to take a shot within the first 12 seconds of a possession, totaling 75 to 80 shots a game.
“It takes a lot of mental focus,” said Fuller, who is averaging better than 20 points a game.
During its 73-60 nonleague win over Mount Tahoma last week, a game in which Barnes said his team didn’t play its best basketball, the Tornados took 64 shots — 29 of them 3-pointers (they made nine). Of their 64 shots, 58 came within the first 14 seconds of the shot clock.
Davis, Yelm’s lone returning starter from last year’s team that went 3-17, said it took a few weeks’ worth of running to get accustomed to an up-and-down game, but after that, it all came naturally.
“That’s why games are so easy,” Davis said.
Just as Barnes is doing in his first season in Yelm, Gerrits changed the basketball culture in the Tornados program.
In six seasons as Yelm’s coach from 1997-2003, Gerrits, now Luke Salme’s varsity assistant coach at Olympia, transformed the Tornados into a winner. After inheriting a program that went 3-17 the year before he arrived, the 2003 Yelm team went 16-10 overall and qualified for the Class 3A state tournament at the Tacoma Dome.
Gerrits’ squad had a bit more size back then; three players — Mike Larson, Mark Iverson and TJ Rogich — stood 6-foot-5, and all averaged double figures in scoring.
While the similarities between the two teams are few and far between, one that’s comparable is winning.
“I love their confidence and how hard they play,” Gerrits said. “(Barnes) is doing a great job.”