Longtime Vail Christian basketball coach Sheldon Kuhns leads Saints into region tournament in final season
In his 23rd season, the program's only coach is looking to take the Saints back to state for the first time in a decade
Sheldon Kuhns never wanted the 2022-2023 basketball season to be about him.
“This is about this year’s version of the Vail Christian boys basketball team,” he said back in November. The man who has coached every game in program history except the first four is getting his wish … sort of.
Going into the 2A region tournament weekend, the Saints team is the story. After graduating eight seniors last year, assistant coach J.C. Moritz — who is also retiring after 10 years as Kuhn’s assistant — admitted he thought this year could be a rebuilding year.
“Then all of a sudden we’re 16-3,” he said of a squad whose 9-0 league mark topped the Western Slope. The Saints rode a school-record 13-game winning streak into the district title game against Plateau Valley last Saturday, and while they ended up losing 42-40 to the Cowboys, a rematch is looming.
If the No. 12 Saints get by No. 21 Hoehne on Friday, they would likely face region host No. 5 Plateau Valley (which faces No. 28 Telluride in the first round) in Saturday’s title game. A win there would send the Saints back to the state tournament for the first time since the 2013-2014 season.
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“We’ve been to the round of 16 way too many times,” said Moritz, who’s coached all three of his sons during a tenure that has never seen a trip to the Elite Eight.
“If we could go into somebody’s hometown and beat them on their court to get to state, that would be awesome.” It would also be a storybook ending to a coaching career so impactful that Vail Christian christened its court with Kuhns’ name last winter.
“Sheldon Kuhns is the Vail Christian boys basketball program,” athletic director Tim Pierson stated of the Pennsylvania-born coach who left his parents’ dairy farm for Vail with three high school buddies and wound up staying.
After a 23-year career spent cultivating a program from eight combined wins in its first four seasons to one with over 200 to date, plus three league championships, two district and region titles, and three state tournament appearances, it’s impossible to leave the humble and fun-loving Kuhns out of the narrative.
“I think they understand that there’s some finality there,” Moritz responded when asked if he thought players felt any extra pressure to win for Kuhns this season. Whatever the answer, players have indeed put together a year to remember. There’s Quinn Downey dropping 42 points in the season opener and drilling 12 3-pointers against Ouray. He isn’t the only player who can go off, either.
Theo Moritz and Jack Pryor carried the team over Vail Mountain School in the first of two rivalry wins over the Gore Rangers this year, and Andre Skweir and Will Neumann, who averages 10.8 points per game, have been formidable additions on offensive and defense. “They have basketball in their blood,” Moritz said of Skweir and Neumann.
While Moritz said past groups have been pigeonholed into one particular strength, this group’s adaptability has given opponents fits.
“We’ve had teams where we’ve had to lock in and do one thing and then we’d eventually get beat because they’re one or two-dimensional,” he said before adding that this team is the first to solve the Saints’ traditional third-quarter woes.
“We can really run anything we want. They’re very coachable. Our box of tools is the most I’ve ever seen for a team.”
Kuhns noted after last week’s district semifinal win over VMS that “this team does whatever it takes.” Kuhns’ former assistant Doug Bruce, a two-time Missouri coach of the year during his 37-year career in Kansas City, was present for a game earlier in the season. He left impressed by the team’s versatility, too.
“They have a couple of really good players who can take over, which you have to have, but everybody who goes out on the court knows their role and tries to perform their role,” he said. “And they can do a lot of different things on offense and defense.”
Bruce moved to Colorado in 2006 with the intention of retiring, but he hadn’t settled into his Twin Lakes home for even a month before he became connected to Vail Christian. He taught math and was Kuhn’s assistant, though when he was approached with the latter gig, he’s fairly certain no one knew of his past pedigree. Even when Kuhns found out who was under him, however, he didn’t bristle.
“He was more than receptive,” Bruce said. “I had the time of my life working with him and the guys because there was none of the resistance you would think — ‘oh here’s the new guy coming in.’ Sheldon was nice to me and acted like he wanted to hear what I had to say and I think we had a great collaboration right from the beginning.”
In 2012-2013, the Saints went 20-5 en route to defeating four-time defending state champion Caliche, 87-76, in the third-place game. That game, along with the narrow state semifinal loss, was a turning point in the program’s history, according to Bruce.
“That was a signal to everybody that Sheldon and Vail Christian boys basketball was getting to where they wanted to be,” he said.
“And he’s maintained that ever since then. They’ve been on the top of the list for 10 years now. The consistency’s been amazing.” A veteran overseer of successful athletic culture, Bruce believes the small private school in Edwards has firmly established a positive way of doing things.
“It’s kind of a self-perpetuating thing, even amongst the kids,” he said. “There’s a standard there and expectation now that the kids are buying into more than the coaches are enforcing.”
“Each season is unique and special,” added Pierson. “Sheldon is consistent with culture and adaptable with personnel. Sheldon has a saying — ‘culture eats strategy for lunch.'”
The calculated Bruce would eventually lay the foundation for Vail Christian’s offensive and defensive systems, encouraging Kuhns to go outside of his man-to-man philosophy and embrace zone defenses. When Moritz came on board, he slotted himself into the X’s and O’s role Bruce had chiseled along the bench. Almost daily, the analytical-minded Moritz will find a friendly argument to get into with Kuhns, who artfully and humbly blends his coaching instincts and player relationships with Moritz’s statistical truths.
“He and I argue the whole game — and it’s been fun,” laughed Moritz. “When he gets tired of me, he’ll move to the end of the bench and I can’t get a hold of him down there.”
Bruce also mentored Kuhns in what would be his trademark as a coach: the ability to handle coach-player relationships.
“Having a good camaraderie with the players but still having them understand that you were definitely in charge,” Bruce explained.
“I think that’s one thing he’s come a long ways on. I watch his guys respond to him now — and it’s ‘yes sir, no sir’ — and some of that comes from longevity but some of that really comes from the coach working on that part of his style.”
Moritz agrees, adding, “What a lot of people don’t know about Sheldon is that he brings to the program not just a basketball piece. The way that he talks to the kids is really beautiful.”
Kuhns established “fight club” in the Saints locker room, where athletes can talk about anything they want, knowing it stays there. Head of School Steve O’Niel and Moritz both described the environment as being a place where Kuhns has been able to shape and mold young men of character.
“I think it’s just a beautiful time where these kids get to talk about things that are bothering them — school issues, life issues, religion,” Moritz said.
“He’s a great communicator. He’s really good at interpreting and explaining that kind of information. The kids love that. It’s nice to have a male role model and he does a great job of that.”
“A few years ago, Coach Kuhns said this to me: A career has never been my purpose but a means to an end. That end is working with young people, particularly young men, helping them move from boyhood to manhood prepared to enter the world,” stated O’Niel.
“With Sheldon, he deserves all the credit for how long he’s been at it, how successful he’s been, how much time it’s taken — it’s an entire family commitment,” said Bruce, who feels Kuhns’ work ethic is what’s undergirded his coaching greatness. “His wife (Melita keeps all of the statistics) has been there throughout the whole thing, too.”
Moritz said he’ll miss all the vast investment of time — road trips, scouting, practices, and of course, the playoffs.
“That’s when the team’s the closest. It’s like this little band of brothers and it’s us against the world. I really like that,” he said. “It’s been a great ride.”
“It’s going to be hard to replace Sheldon Kuhns,” Bruce summarized.
“It’s going to be really hard. Vail Christian is really lucky having him there as long as he’s been there.”