Since the turn of the new year, the Prestonwood Christian boys basketball team has been on a roll.
Tuesday's 81-46 victory over Fort Worth Nolan marked the Lions' sixth in a row during an unbeaten month of January. All six wins have come by double digits.
The gaudiest performance during that stretch came on Jan. 17 with a season-high in points scored for a 97-35 rout of Dallas Thunder. Afterwards, it was a moment of celebration for the Lions, as that victory marked the 400th in the career of head coach Jeff Clarkson.
"I think any time you reach one of those milestones you reflect, thinking back to all the players and coaches who have been on that journey with you, plus the coaches who instilled that passion," Clarkson said. "It was special to share that moment with my team and let them know how much I appreciate the things they do."
Although that journey includes 20 years as a head coach, the memories date back a bit further for Clarkson. He remembers growing up in Plano and riding his bike to Carpenter Middle School to play in a summer basketball league that was organized by former Plano East junior varsity coach Tom Quigley. Fittingly enough, Clarkson would go on to help lead the Panthers to their lone UIL state championship game appearance, which came in 1994, and coached under Quigley at Naaman Forest as an assistant in 1999.
Clarkson lauded Quigley as a prominent influence on his own coaching career, as well as current Highland Park head coach David Piehler, who recently captured the 600th win of his decorated career, and former East head coach Steve Adair, plus Jim Sigona (Collin College), Lonn Reisman (Tarleton State) and Tommy Thomas (The Colony).
Clarkson leaned on those teachings, plus his own experiences as a player, upon making the transition to head coach for the first time in 2003 at Naaman.
"We went to the state championship my senior year at Plano East and just looking at the way we ran offseason and the way coach Quigley did it when I was an assistant, he did such a good job of establishing the right pieces of how to operate on a daily basis," Clarkson said. "... You just learn as you go. I was 26 years old and still trying to figure it out."
Clarkson coached the Rangers from 2003-12, leading the program to a state semifinalist finish in 2012. He then returned to his high school alma mater to lead East through the 2018 season. Across those six years, the Panthers appeared in the regional semifinals in 2013 and the regional quarterfinals in 2016.
"I really feel like this is my calling. This is what God intended for me to do," Clarkson said. "Obviously, the game of basketball gave me that tool to be able to invest in these young men, their character and the way they live their lives on a daily basis, hopefully so they can be great leaders in the community, husbands and fathers one day.
"Basketball is a tool to teach them the things they need to be successful in life and a lot of the lessons you go through in a season apply directly to whatever career you choose. It's what I learned from it and what I want to give to these guys."
Since 2018, Clarkson has carried out that vision at Prestonwood. During his tenure, the Lions reached the TAPPS 6A state championship game in 2019 but dropped a double-overtime thriller to San Antonio Antonian, 70-67, and the program has aspirations of another big run in the coming weeks.
Prestonwood entered the week ranked No. 1 among TAPPS 6A/SPC 4A private schools by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches courtesy of a 24-6 record. The Lions have the talent to make plenty of noise in the postseason, producing a staggering six double-digit scorers in Tuesday's win over Nolan. Junior Jalen Shelley led the way with 19 points, followed by seniors Donovan Lovelace (13), Garrett Falls (10), Coco Escheik (10), Luke McGary (10) and sophomore Francis Chukwudebelu (10) — all of whom have contributed to Prestonwood's resurgent campaign.
"It's a blessing to have as much talent as we do, but there's obviously going to be sacrifice involved in that," Clarkson said. "Players are going to have to limit the amount of touches or scoring because there are plenty of guys who can get the job done, but we've got great kids and it takes time to learn everyone and build that trust to make the extra pass or make that rotation on defense when needed.
"There were some struggles early on getting everyone on the same page, and that's to be expected, but they've been very coachable and I feel like we've made a lot of strides."
The Lions won't have to wait long to see how that progress translates to the postseason as they enter their final week of district ballgames. Prestonwood has regular-season road contests remaining against Trinity Christian-Addison on Tuesday and Parish Episcopal on Friday, with the start of the TAPPS 6A postseason looming on Feb. 14.
"It would be great to say we won it all and that's always a goal to win that last game, but the journey is about what you look back on and appreciate," Clarkson said. "We're going to do what we can to get it done and hoist that trophy, which would be an amazing blessing, but I also know that as a team we'll look back on the season and learn and grow from the process. These guys are going to have great relationships down the road from this season."
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