MORGANTOWN — Trinity Christian School boys’ basketball head coach John Fowkes enjoys his jewelry.
In particular, Fowkes harbors a fondness for rings. If you walk into his office at the school, you’ll find a display case with his favorite set — the trio of championship rings he won as an assistant for the girls’ program at Morgantown High School, from 2014-’16.
“A lot of time and effort went into it,” Fowkes said of the three straight title campaigns. “Watching film, spending time with the kids — it’s all worth it. Seeing how happy it made the girls, well, it’s a pretty special thing.”
Following the 2015-’16 prep season, the position for boys’ head coach opened at Trinity. Following a 2010-’11 campaign where they earned a number one seed in the Class A state tournament and finished runner-up to Madonna, the Warriors bowed out in the first-round of the tournament the next season, and failed to return for four consecutive seasons.
Trinity was on the search for a coach with championship experience who could return the program to prominence. Fowkes seized the opportunity, taking the reigns at the private Class A school. He brought with him a wealth of knowledge and a new coaching philosophy for the Warriors.
“You just knew he was going to bring that championship culture to Trinity and harvest it,” Trinity assistant coach Brandon Staley said.
“Coach Fowkes knows what it takes and the work that needs to be put into being a state championship caliber team. That’s not something that was a part of our basketball program in the recent years before he showed up,” Trinity senior Daniel Woods said. “He passed that on to us, and we were able to apply it both in how we play in games, as well as how we carry ourselves on and off the court.”
Fowkes knew if he wanted a fourth ring to add to his collection, he needed to transform the environment at Trinity. First and foremost, he decided it was time for Trinity to get a taste of the defense his MHS teams were so well-known for.
“I was under two different head coaches at Morgantown. Both had different styles, but both had a tremendous focus on defense and what it meant for winning championships,” he said. “It was at MHS that I learned it all started on defense, so now I preach playing defense.”
Even then, he knew he had to find players within the school who wanted to play basketball and could also meet a certain set of criteria — a championship checklist, you might call. For Fowkes, there are certain characteristics that a championship caliber team embodies.
“I think the number one thing a team needs to have is a good chemistry. Every team I’ve seen win a title had great chemistry. The girls at MHS had it — none of the girls ever averaged much more than 10 points a game, and there were some Division I players on that team,” Fowkes said. “Chemistry is huge. Also, in this day and age you have to work year-round — even if you play another sport. That was a special group of girls. They were always in the weight room — a lot of girls’ programs across the state aren’t in the weight room like they were.”
Luckily for Fowkes, the group of sophomores and juniors he inherited at Trinity was ready to buy into his program with vigor. He quickly impressed his athletes with the passion and intensity he brought to the court.
“Really, it started my sophomore year, and I was out with a knee injury that whole season. I got to observe how he ran his program without being a part of it,” Woods said. “Seeing the discipline he ran the program with, it made me want to be a part of it.”
It was an adjustment for all involved, and that first season wasn’t without its missteps. The players had to learn about their new coach, and vice versa.
In just his second season, though, Fowkes led his squad back to the state tournament. The Warriors advanced to the semifinals before bowing out to eventual champion Wheeling Central.
“When coach Fowkes entered the program, there was definitely a learning curve. He had to learn our strengths and weaknesses as players and how we would gel as a team, and we had to learn his coaching style,” senior Briston Bennett said. “Now going into year three, I think we all have a better understanding of each other.”
The experience in Charleston during his MHS days paid off when the Warriors made their trip, as Fowkes already had a good grasp on how things run in that environment.
“Honestly, I did everything the same that we did it when we went down with the MHS girls. Just being down there before made it a bit easier than being a first-time coach down there,” Fowkes said. “It made it easier for the kids that I wasn’t fumbling around. Now, every time we go down there, we’re going to do it the same way. It was real smooth.”
According to Bennett, the benefits of his previous experience didn’t stop with organization during the hectic week. Even on the sidelines, Fowkes knew just how to instruct his players for the situation. It was nothing new for him.
“It’s great to have a leader that’s been there. When you first step out on the court in an environment like that, a state championship stage, you’re bound to be nervous,” he said. “Coach Fowkes helped us know what to expect and how to handle that.”
As Fowkes looks to the next season, he sees a roster filled with 11 seniors who, in his eye, meet every requirement of a championship team. The team has worked nonstop through the summer, building their game with trainers Jerry Handley and Calvin Moore, of Viking Performance. Suddenly, he’s having visions of cutting down the nets in Charleston, and bringing home that fourth ring — his first as a head coach.
“They want it bad. We had college coaches take notice during June about how hard our kids played and how into the game our bench was,” he said. “We’re playing in the middle of June when it doesn’t matter, and these kids are diving on the ground for loose balls and standing and cheering for their teammates. They want it. On any given night, we’ll play harder than someone else.”
Fowkes said earning the championship would mean the world to him — not just personally, but for the kids he’s formed a bond with, and for a school that has never had the experience. Woods, who was in attendance in 2011 when the Warriors lost at the buzzer in the state final, described himself as heartbroken that night. For everyone in the locker room, it seems, the title would be some extraordinary.
“That’s been a dream, for sure. That’s been the goal since we were elementary kids,” Bennett said. “Everything else individually is just bonus. We have guys, including myself, who have aspirations of playing college ball, but for this next year, our only goal is to bring that state championship back to Morgantown.”