Cristo Rey High boys basketball coach Shawn Johnson likes a challenge.
That’s part of what drew him to Cristo Rey Richmond High School, a private Catholic school situated near the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. It’s in its third year of existence, and there’s been a junior varsity boys basketball team the past two seasons. But with no upperclassmen in the school, Cristo Rey, to this point, couldn’t field a varsity roster.
There’s still no senior class, but an assortment of juniors, sophomores and freshmen filled out Johnson’s roster for the Royals’ inaugural season this winter. The juniors are the freshmen who made up the school’s first class.
“We’ve competed with pretty much every team we’ve gotten on the court with,” Johnson said, adding that his Royals have scrimmaged Henrico, Huguenot and Thomas Jefferson, among other prominent local programs.
“Just them trusting in the process, believing in me as a coach, that’s where we are right now. I’ve got a great coaching staff, they’re awesome. We’re all on the same page, and really gunning for these guys to make some noise around here this season.”
Johnson was the head JV coach at Benedictine the past four seasons. Former Cadets varsity coach Robert Churchwell III originally hired Johnson, before Churchwell became the athletics director at Cristo Rey.
So last year, Churchwell asked Johnson whether the latter was interested in starting a varsity program.
“Everything worked out and now I’m here starting this program,” Johnson said.
Cristo Rey has Steward, St. Christopher’s, Trinity Episcopal, James River, Thomas Jefferson and Veritas on its schedule, among other local programs.
Highland Springs is hosting a Christmas tournament Dec. 20-22, and Cristo Rey is part of that field.
“We’re playing a lot of places to get ourselves out there and known,” Johnson said.
For postseason purposes, the Royals cannot officially enter a division until after their inaugural season. They plan to compete in VISAA Division II, but with more than 200 kids in the school, their enrollment is enough to compete in Division I, so Johnson said the decision regarding their classification will come after the season ends.
Student-athletes have to maintain a 3.5 GPA to compete for Cristo Rey. Johnson said the team GPA is 3.7 now.
“They’re really good academically and, coming from Benedictine, I’m strict about it too,” Johnson said.
“I came in with the same mentality, if you don’t have the grades, you can’t play basketball.”
Cristo Rey beat James River Home School 56-33 Friday in its first game of the season. Lamar Walters Jr., the Royals’ leading scorer, finished with 23 points.
Walters Jr. is a sophomore point guard Johnson called “the catalyst of this team.”
“As he goes, they go,” Johnson said, adding that Walters Jr. transferred from West Point High and reclassified after earning all-district honors as a freshman and sophomore.
Johnson said he’s got players from Richmond, Hanover, Southside, Mechanicsville, “pretty much all over.”
Junior forward 6-foot-3 Marc Turner has been at Cristo Rey three years. Johnson said he’s a high-energy athlete with an “unbelievable” motor, he forms the primary one-two scoring punch with Walters Jr.
Another junior, Kavon Kelly-Humphries, is a 6-3 forward who can shoot the ball and is growing in confidence, Johnson said. Freshman big man Kofi Williams is 6-4 stretch-four who’s still growing and has “big upside,” Johnson said. Williams had 12 points against James River Home School.
Developmentally, Johnson said, for a first-year program, his group is already pretty far along.
”They’re way ahead of where I thought we would be right now,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to put that all to the players, they came in, they accepted me as a new coach and they’ve followed my lead. I kept telling them, if y’all put the work in, we’ll compete. That’s all we’ve got to do this year, we have to be competitive in order for us to get recognition and exposure as a new program and relatively new school.”
One of Johnson’s friends asked him when he took the job why he wanted to take on such a project. Johnson’s JV teams at Benedictine used to beat Cristo Rey by 30-plus points.
“I said, ‘Man, I want to go there because I like a challenge,’” Johnson said. “I want to see if I can take this new program, put them together, make them into a team. So far, it is going so, so well.”