Paul Klee: Sierra's Terry Dunn, C.J. Jennings are how high school sports can work

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On the nights he's working, taking admission tickets at the Tinseltown theater, Sierra High basketball star C.J. Jennings often runs into a familiar face or three.

Sometimes they're guys he played with or against, teammates or rivals. Sometimes it's a fan who saw him eclipse 1,400 points in a four-year career. Sometimes it's, well, let C.J. tell it.

"I have a lot of refs who come in to see movies and they say, 'I reffed your games,'" Jennings said. "I don't usually remember them from the games, but it's nice they remember me."

You tell them you could've used a few more calls, right?

"I let coach (Terry) Dunn handle that," he said.

This is how it's supposed to work: Star player and coach working in unison. And there's been no better example among area teams than Dunn, a longtime Division I assistant turned high school mentor, and Jennings, a hard-charging, 6-foot-1 senior guard who will sign a letter of intent to play hoops at West Texas A&M on Wednesday, national signing day.

The high school player-coach relationship is an important and impactful one. If it doesn't work, four years you can never get back turn regrettable. If it works, with a good player and a good coach, you go 43-1 in conference over three seasons and earn a college scholarship.

That's what Dunn and Jennings did. From 2014-17, Sierra lost a single conference game and Jennings twice earned the league's Player of the Year award. All told, in four years? Seventy wins. That's a lot of joyful locker rooms, a lot of reasons to embrace practice the next day.

"C.J. started all four years," Dunn said.

Only one other guy has done that at Sierra, he said: KK Boyd in the 1990s.

"Coach Dunn, when I was a freshman and sophomore, I was kind of in a role and that's what I did," Jennings said. "Then this year and last year he really let me go out more and go after it a little. I think that gave me confidence, you know?"

The mentorship didn't stop when Jennings' prep career was nearing a close. As a man who coached and recruited along the Front Range at Air Force (with Reggie Minton), Colorado (during the Chauncey Billups era) and Colorado State (when Dunn sent flowers to the head coach's wife to ensure he got the gig), Dunn had special insight into the recruiting process.

Here's the cool part: Jennings soaked it in. Dunn and Jennings studied their own lists, from his dream schools to the number of Division I players who transfer from their original schools. "So you need an academic fit as well as an athletic fit," Dunn said. They studied styles of play and even coaching staffs' tendencies to recruit over the players they already have.

"Those guys who are there when you get there, they want to play, too. They're not going to let you walk in and take their job," Dunn said. "That was all a part of what we talked about with C.J. I think he ultimately found a great place for him."

West Texas A&M is a D-II program that competes in the Lone Star Conference, where last season the Buffs, ahem, finished second in the league with a 26-9 overall record. They play fast and averaged 86 points, a style that fits Jennings, an attacking guard. They made it clear he's a part of their future.

"It meant a lot that when they came to see me play (at Sierra) they brought all three coaches, including the head coach," Jennings said.

When I saw him play, I thought Jennings was a low- to mid-major Division I prospect, and he had Division I opportunities. But that, too, is where Dunn helped the kid see the big picture.

"I really felt like he is a Division I player. I don't say that tongue in cheek. I recruited at that level for 20-plus years. I think he can play at the level," Dunn said. "But what I want our guys to do is go to a level where you can play, where you're wanted. You're going to have good days and bad days. You're going to have to want to be there on those bad days."

There weren't many bad days during Jennings' four years at Sierra, only learning days. When Jennings was a freshman, Dunn initiated a conversation that few coaches must have with high school kids: "He is the only player I have ever coached that I had to beg him to shoot the basketball," Dunn said. "I told him, 'I wouldn't be starting you if you didn't have the skills.'"

Times change, kids mature, and here's an example where the four-year process can be a smooth one when player and coach combine for a shared vision.

"His last two years," Dunn said with a laugh, "I didn't have to tell him to shoot."


Twitter: @bypaulklee