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High School Boys Basketball: Saxony Lutheran hires Justin Callahan as new head coach

After a season where the Saxony Lutheran boys basketball team’s head coach stepped down and the Crusaders only won two games, the program now has a new face at the helm.

Justin Callahan was hired to take over as the new Saxony boys basketball head coach last week after Chris Crawford served as the team’s interim coach following Kevin Williams’ resignation in December.

“After 2017, I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue to do it or not, to be honest,” Coach Callahan said. “To be fair to the kids, I thought if I wasn’t 100% sure I would probably just step down. It didn’t take long to realize after that I had made a mistake. After a couple years, I realized I enjoy it too much and still feel like I have something to offer.”

Callahan started coaching basketball back in 1990, primarily for his alma mater Farmington and also in the Amateur Athletic Union. He was recently Farmington’s boys basketball coach until 2017 and helped lead the Knights to the Class 4 Final Four in 2014.

The Knights finished fourth that season after falling to Lafayette 46-41 in the semifinals and Helias Catholic 60-53 in overtime of the third-place game.

Callahan also served as Farmington’s head coach in the late 1990s and early 2000s before taking an administrative role with the school. He recorded an overall coaching record of 87-56 in his final five-year stint with the Knights.

After stepping down as Farmington’s coach, he taught at St. Paul Lutheran and coached middle school basketball. Callahan said the Saxony position was something he couldn’t pass up.

Before the Crusaders finished 2-23 this season, Saxony won back-to-back district championships and won 20-plus games from 2015 to 2017 for a combined total of 72 wins and 17 losses.

Saxony was also one game away from reaching the Class 3 Final Four in the 2016-17 season, but the team fell to state runner-ups Whitfield in the quarterfinals.

Williams stepped down after three seasons with Saxony because a parent of one of his players confronted him about the way he coached. Williams said, “They were making a mountain out of a mole hill really trying to get me to be a different coach.”

The Crusaders were 1-2 after Williams resigned and only won one more game the remainder of the season.

“I know that had to be a tough situation for everybody,” Callahan said. “April to me starts the next season, and we’ll have open gym. We’re going to meet with the kids here and get a calendar to see when we can start open gyms and start fresh. Last year is gone — can’t do anything about that, and I don’t know all the details. We’re just looking forward.”

After spending nearly 30 years as a basketball coach, Callahan said coaching isn’t just about loving the game but also about connecting with his players and being a role model for them. He also said it means everything to him now that he can bring certainty to a program that had uncertainty.

“Once [my players] leave Saxony Lutheran and they are out [in the world], they’re going to be better brothers, better sons and at some point in the future better husbands and fathers,” Callahan said. “I’m close to Christ, so hopefully I can display that and give God the glory and hopefully just make them better individuals.”

Coaching wise, Callahan said he is a strategist and kind of views basketball like a chess game. He also said each player on his teams will know the game better by teaching them how to come off screens and read defenses instead of running around the court with no purpose. This also includes how to play not just man-to-man defense but zone and how to attack those schemes offensively.

“I try to teach [my players] the game completely, and then during the season we try to do different things,” Callahan said. “I like to mix it up and see what the opponent does. Every team you play has strengths and weaknesses, so I like to exploit those weaknesses.

“For me, I like the challenge of really studying my opponents and getting our kids to be smart enough to where you can do different things. I like to play man-to-man, I like to get after it full court and be aggressive and trap if possible. On offense, I like a fast-paced game and try to have fast-break opportunities if you don’t have anything.”

Callahan also said he wants his teams to be able to run a secondary fast break, where his offense would run a motion offense where players must read the defense and help each other get open off screens.

The reason why Callahan returned to coaching at the high school ranks because his son and the group he coached in AAU were juniors and the position at Farmington was available. Callahan actually served as Farmington’s principal until he took the head coaching job.

“As seniors, we went to the Final Four and had a lead with about a minute left in the semifinal game, so we were that close from getting to the state championship game,” Callahan said. “We couldn’t get it done, but that was OK because it was a great experience. [After 2017], I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to come back or not. There was a lot of talent coming back, and I knew we were going to be successful. I just questioned if I really wanted to continue to do that, but I think it was for a purpose. The events have led me to be right here right now. I think that was my ultimate fate.”

Nick McNeal covers high school sports, college sports and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Cape Girardeau County for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjsports@socket. net.

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