Some 20 years later, Tony Niehaus still gushes over the fact that he hitched himself to Mark Sharpley and his all-encompassing panoptic basketball mind.
A growing high school talent in late 90s and early 2000s, Niehaus evolved into one of the state’s biggest stars all while following Sharpley from Belleview Christian, where they’d won two state titles, to the recently expanded charter school, Jefferson Academy.
Off the court, he said he’d pick his coach’s brain whenever he could. Often it was in the middle of three- and four-hour road trips en route to scout their next opponent.
“It was mainly me and the coach because I was always one that hung out more with the coaches than the kids,” Niehaus, now 37, chuckled.
On Saturday during Jefferson’s Academy’s basketball games against Kent Denver, those memories and more will be shared as former players and staff will reunite as the school celebrates the 20th anniversary of the 2002 team that Niehaus and Sharpley helped lead to a Class 2A title.
The team went down in history as the first public charter school to win a state championship in any sport in Colorado, per JA.
“They were great team players,” said Sharpley, looking back.
The longtime coach is still the JA boys basketball coach. He also coaches the girls.
“They were very fundamentally skilled players. And they were pretty grounded to the roots of those fundamentals. They were a really good shooting team.”
The memories of the school’s first title haven’t faded.
The Jaguars were coming off a state finals loss to Sangre de Cristo in 2001. As Niehaus remembers it, JA had stormed through its schedule in dominating fashion before getting tripped up by a team from the small town of Mosca, one that lacked size back then, but made up for in scheme.
“They played like small ball on us,” Niehaus said. “And they just grinded us away.”
A year later, the Jaguars redeemed themselves. They returned to the 2A finals behind Niehaus, who was named by some outlets as the classification’s player of the year.
Sharpley said his star player had something like 38 points in the 72-52 finals win over Cheyenne Wells.
“To kind of erase that pain of losing the prior year was really cool,” Sharpley said. “The kids were really dedicated and worked really hard and had that one goal and focus to make sure they could do everything they could to make it happen.”
Since then, Sharpley has stayed with Jefferson Academy, winning another title in ’06 while evolving into a staple in the Broomfield community.
His players from the ’02 team have mostly moved away. One as far as Australia, he said.
For his former star, Niehaus, that title 20 years ago was something of a summation to his basketball career. He had numerous offers to play college ball and went to Hastings College. But that ended quickly, he said.
Now off the court, but never far from it, Niehaus has taken the knowledge and passion for sports that was helped developed by Sharpley and JA, and has made it into a lucrative career.
Known as “Big T” in the daily fantasy community, he has long been a professional gambler with an expertise ranging across several sports. Last year, he won $1 million playing fantasy golf on the fantasy site DraftKings.
“That team kind of shaped everything for me,” he said. “I mean, we would go scouting every weekend and that kind of made me who I am now. The daily fantasy and all that was built off it and everything coach taught me.”
He paused. “It’s crazy to think it’s been 20 years.”