Basketball

How Joe Ortiz made ThunderRidge a perennial basketball powerhouse from the ground up

How Joe Ortiz made ThunderRidge a perennial basketball powerhouse from the ground up

In Joe Ortiz’s first season at ThunderRidge in 1997, the Grizzlies were a new program at a new school and had only a freshman team, which finished 2-11.

But Ortiz, committed for the long haul, was determined to build a power plant. He had a long-term vision for basketball in mind, a vision that relied on a power system with a combination of college-level discipline and talent.

Twenty-six years later, Ortiz’s plan has transformed the Grizzlies into one of Colorado’s elite programs. Under 58, ThunderRidge has appeared in 11 Final Fours, with three state titles (2002, 2003 and 2021) and four state finalists. And the Grizzlies are the No. 1 seed in this year’s Class 5A tournament, which will face Continental League rival Rock Canyon in Saturday’s Great 8.

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

ThunderRidge Grizzlies head coach Joe Ortiz in the second round of the Colorado 5A basketball tournament against the Heritage Eagles at ThunderRidge on February 26, 2022.

“It’s always been a calling for me,” Ortiz said. “When I got here I knew we were building and what I was signing up for. But I was at all the feeder team stuff and I knew who we had. I was looking down the road and I saw what the program could accomplish…I had the mindset to make your place the big time and I always thought I could have the most influence here.

Before turning ThunderRidge into a suburban hoops powerhouse, Ortiz played in Littleton under Hall of Fame coach Ron Vlasin. At Colorado State, he served as Director of Students. After graduating from CSU in 1986, Ortiz spent the next three seasons as Vlasin’s assistant at Littleton.

In Ortiz’s first three years on the LHS staff, the Lions appeared in three Class 4A state title games, winning two. These were formative years in Ortiz’s coaching career as he found his voice and refined his philosophy. under Vlasin, who is tied for the most state titles in Colorado basketball history at nine with Denver East’s Rudy Carey.

Vlasin recalled Ortiz as a “feisty little competitor” on the court. Ortiz was only a role player for Vlasin’s Lions, but his basketball IQ as a young assistant at Littleton (then later as a varsity assistant at Arapahoe under Vlasin) was evident.

“He was a great assistant, a hard worker, and he really started taking over everything in the program,” Vlasin said. “Like when we had basketball camps, he did most of the work and the teaching. You could see straight away that he had all the attributes that he was going to be a really great coach. He was hungry to learn and train the game.”

ThunderRidge’s power system, which started with just college levels but has since expanded to include teams as young as fourth grade, provides the pipeline for Ortiz.

“(Ortiz) has a very high interest and involvement in the eating program,” said longtime ThunderRidge assistant Bob Rusk. “He gets to know the children at this level and develops a relationship with them; he is able to predict who will be the future university players, the future university beginners. He works hard to develop those relationships early. This is where expectations for the program begin to be set.

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With consistency established at the lowest levels, enduring success at ThunderRidge — the Ortiz Grizzlies have had a losing college season in 22 years in Class 5A — comes from an atmosphere of both respect and responsibility. Former ThunderRidge star and current college assistant David Arnold said Ortiz “walks a hard line to walk as a coach” in terms of mixing those intangibles.

Ortiz’s confluence of intensity, didacticism and fatherly love created an environment ripe for victory.

ThunderRidge Grizzlies head basketball coach Joe...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

ThunderRidge Grizzlies head coach Joe Ortiz in the second round of the Colorado 5A basketball tournament against the Heritage Eagles at ThunderRidge on February 26, 2022.

“He cares about you and you know it, even if he’s at your throat or eating away at you for something,” said Matt Bouldin, former ThunderRidge star and two-time Gatorade Player of the Year. “He brings guys together better than anyone else I’ve been around. He could have a bunch of guys that aren’t all recruited, and they’d be legit. Or he could have five studs who are all going to college, and they’ll buy. He always knows how to create an atmosphere of camaraderie and family that really translates to the floor.

Ortiz said coaching is “all about relationships with me.”

“I love our players and we (as coaches) want them to know that every day in one way or another – and yes, sometimes it can be more difficult,” he said. declared. “But that’s who we are. Sacrifice for the greater good of this team, and every decision we make is what’s best for the program. This has always been our guarantees and these have not changed.

The pillars of Ortiz’s program philosophy haven’t changed, but the Grizzlies’ style of play is continually evolving. Ortiz’s ability to adapt his team’s style of play to his personnel each season has kept ThunderRidge atop the Class 5A heap.

“When we won the title (in 2002) we didn’t outclass people – we locked ourselves in defensively and we won games like 34-29, 32-28,” said the coach- Rock Canyon leader, Kent Grams, who played for Ortiz. at Thunder Ridge. “When we had a three-point lead, it felt like a blowout because nobody could score on us. It was our identity and Coach Ortiz fueled it.

“He’s always flexible without losing his system — he adapts that system as needed based on his staff and who he has. Right now they have a bunch of big guys who can shoot from the outside and some really good guys on the wing and on the point. Now they’re playing more five outs, executing more zone defenses because they have length and can play a lot of threes. He makes the right adjustments each year based on his staff, but he never loses the basic principles on which his program was established.

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The mentor takes on the protege on Saturday when the Ortiz Grizzlies take on the Grams Jaguars at Denver Coliseum. ThunderRidge (23-2) won 63-50 in the Continental League earlier in the season, but Ortiz isn’t taking anything for granted, especially given the Grizzlies’ lone loss to Chaparral.

That 62-41 loss on February 8 was a revelation, as was the test ThunderRidge suffered in its first playoff game last Saturday. Heritage, the No. 33 seed, opened the Round 2 game on a 13-2 run before ThunderRidge battled for a 54-48 victory to advance.

ThunderRidge Grizzlies head basketball coach Joe...

Andy Cross, The Denver Post

ThunderRidge Grizzlies head coach Joe Ortiz in the second round of the Colorado 5A basketball tournament against the Heritage Eagles at ThunderRidge on February 26, 2022.

“Chaparral has exposed our weaknesses, and we have to turn that into a positive,” Ortiz said. “They got up on us, we shot the ball badly and we didn’t execute well. Honestly, we had done that in other games, but we managed to overcome it… You just have to stay balanced (in playoffs) With the best teams we’ve had at ThunderRidge, we’ve had a balanced score.

This year’s Grizzlies feature main hitter Zach Keller, a Wake Forest signing who is at the heart of the team’s repeated dreams. Also key are senior center Joey Bilello, senior shooting guard Jackson Brennan, sophomore point guard Andrew Crawford, senior shooting guard Mike Karnisovas and senior shooting guard Thomas Walkowiak.

Ortiz, who is retiring from teaching at the end of this year, likes his team’s chances at the Denver Coliseum. But this will be far from his last coaching tour, as he believes he is capable of coaching well into his 70s.

With a career record of 477-140, Ortiz ranks 16th all-time in wins among Colorado high school basketball coaches. Count Grams, Bouldin and Vlasin among those who believe that by the time Ortiz is finally done coaching, he will be among the best basketball coaches in the state. Currently, Carey is the state’s active wins leader and is just six wins away from breaking Dick Katte’s all-time record of 876.

“I’m definitely biased, but when he’s done, Ortiz will be the best high school coach ever in this state,” Grams said. “He has a lot of wins, and probably still a few championships ahead of him.”