Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The last-second heave at the rim appeared to be on target when it left the hands of the Sunrise Mountain High School basketball player. As the ball traveled through the air, there was silence in the home gym and time seemed to stand still, coach John Teran recalls.
These types of moments were infrequent for Sunrise Mountain, a school that opened in 2009 and had little athletic history.
If the shot fell, the Miners would win a game they weren’t supposed to win against Chaparral, a school not only atop the standings but with a history of community pride Sunrise Mountain officials envied.
This game in the 2015 season would be different. Finally, it was time for the Miners to feel good about themselves.
DeShawn Nhlapo’s jumper did more than clinch an improbable 50-49 win, Teran will tell you. He watched in amazement as students stormed the court to celebrate, marveling in the joy the teens received from a moment administrators had long aspired to have.
Forget about the win’s implications for the development of his program. Teran says this night was bigger than sports. It proved Sunrise Mountain — a school saddled with low graduation rates and limited resources, and located in an at-risk part of northeast Las Vegas — could achieve.
Students, for arguably one of the first times, had pride in being Miners.
“As a coach, of course, you want to win,” said Teran, who has been at the school since it opened. “But what’s more important is you want these kids to have a sense of belonging, a sense of pride and sense of camaraderie.”
• • •
A sign in Teran’s office isn’t typical of a basketball coach: “Believe in you. Graduate,” it reads.
Teran is also a counselor at Sunrise Mountain, and his mission of getting children to graduate is more important than what happens on the basketball floor.
“I love the kids here. They appreciate what you can do for them,” Teran said. “Success builds on success, and we are living proof of that. The truth is, not too many people realize what we’ve done.”
The graduation rate was about 47 percent in 2013-14, when the Clark County School District pegged Sunrise Mountain for its turnaround program for low-achieving schools. The process included replacing most of the staff and pumping resources — such as tutoring programs and money — to remake the school.
When graduation rates for 2017 are released, Sunrise Mountain Principal Julia Llapur says 91 percent of about 500 seniors will have walked last June. And many aren’t done with their journey. The annual college fair Teran helps plan has started to gain traction with attendees, many of whom have indicated intentions to continue their education.
“This is their safe haven,” Llapur said. “We’ve been able to teach our kids that they are just as smart and just as deserving as kids at other schools.”
That didn’t happen overnight.
When students come from humble means, arriving at school ready to learn isn’t always easy. Some are known to show up hungry or tired from working a night job to help provide for their family. Llapur has coordinated for a free breakfast to be available and for a late bus to return students home in the early evening, meaning they can stay after school for sports or specialized academic help. Also on campus is a Communities in School of Nevada branch, which helps underprivileged students attain essentials such as school and hygiene supplies or bus passes.
“We are creative with our budget,” Llapur said.
• • •
They won two games in their initial five seasons of football, and both wins came against a program in the middle of a five-year losing streak.
Yet this fall, the Miners did the unthinkable: They won their first playoff game. And not just against any opponent in any venue.
The Miners defeated Moapa Valley, 30-28, in the first round of the playoffs in Overton, becoming first team to beat the perennial class 3A power in the playoffs at its home stadium since 1993.
“It’s enormous for us,” Sunrise Mountain coach Chris Sawyers said after the game. “I can’t overstate that.”
Most basketball gyms across the valley, where schools often have decades worth of history, are decorated with championship banners documenting their accolades. The awards case in front of these gyms are filled with dust-filled trophies and medals.
At Sunrise Mountain, the walls are virtually blank. But possibly not for long.
It won the boys’ soccer state championship in the fall and boys’ track last spring. The basketball team reached the playoffs for the first time last winter and expects a return trip this season, especially with senior guard Steven Adeyemi — an all-league pick last season and easily the school’s best all-time player — leading the way.
“We make a big deal out of every little victory,” Teran said. “When you are positive, it is contagious.”
Part of the positive attitude includes not harping on what the Miners don’t have and instead focusing on what they do have.
Sunrise Mountain coaches also are creative in how they provide for athletes.
Other football teams spend a week each summer at an out-of-state camp, bonding and gaining valuable experience in pads (state rules prohibit padded practice until mid-August). They stay in college dorms at places such as Southern Utah University, and the bill is about $300 a player. For Sunrise Mountain, camp is conducted in Fillmore, Utah, and costs just $25 per kid.
• • •
Sunrise Mountain basketball players gathered after the last tryout, and many were nervous about their spot on the squad. But instead of trimming his roster by about three players, Teran told the group he’d see everyone back the following day.
“I just enjoyed coaching every one of those kids. I told them let’s do it together again tomorrow,” Teran said.
The stipend for a varsity basketball coach is about $3,000. Teran, like others across town, puts that money back into the program. With games often beginning at 6:30 p.m., players need to be fed after school. Many don’t have the means of transportation to make it home and back to campus.
Teran’s pay goes toward peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hot dogs or whatever meal he can piece together for the athletes. He also makes sure they have rides home, whether that’s car-pooling or the city bus. All he asks in return is for the kids to graduate.
“If you judge a coach by his record, I don’t know if I am a good coach,” said Teran, whose team has yet to have a winning season. “I don’t know if I am a good coach, but I am a passionate coach. The kids on the basketball team seem to love this school and each other. We (school officials) feel the same.”
Sunrise Mountain competes in the 3A Sunset League along with defending state champion Desert Pines and state-favorite Cheyenne. The Miners know winning won’t be easy, but don’t expect them to be an easy out, players say.
They’ve learned that anything is possible. Kids are graduating, teams are winning games they previously wouldn’t have qualified to play in — and most important, school morale appears to be at an all-time high.
“Our kids believe we can take the next step and are pushing for that,” Teran said.