COLUMBIA — When the Tolton Catholic boys basketball team hosts Prairie Home on Nov. 27, Tyler Clark won't just be coaching his first game as a Trailblazer. He'll be coaching the first varsity game for the Trailblazers.
Tolton, the first private Catholic high school in the Columbia area, will likely play with a team of three juniors and seven sophomores this season, Clark said. The school will not have senior students until the 2013-14 school year.
"As your first varsity year, you set your tone for the program and the expectations, and what the identity of the team is," Clark said.
While the team lacks players with varsity experience, sophomore guard Brennan Church said that having an underclassman squad could actually be advantageous.
"We're more bonded, I guess you could say," he said. "We see each other every day because we're all the same age, so we have a lot of classes together. It's really good for chemistry."
Sophomore point guard Cameron Bagley echoed Church's sentiments, and said that he looks forward to having the same team for two years in a row.
"I actually kind of like it like that because we all will learn and experience everything together and roll with the punches," Bagley said.
Clark said that he looks for his young Trailblazers team to make noticeable improvements as the year progresses.
"When the season ends and you start the playoffs, everybody's got a 0-0 record, and that's the way we approach it. Hopefully we'll be playing a lot older than we are by the end of the season," he said.
Two seasons ago, Clark took an 8-16 team to the state semifinals as the coach of New Bloomfield. His success at New Bloomfield earned him his job at Tolton.
"My wife and I love this Columbia-Jeff City area, and we wanted to be in a place we could be long term. Also, faith is a huge element in the way I coach, in the way I live my life, and this is a school that embraces that and wants that out of coaches," he said.
This is the first time Clark has coached or taught at a private high school.
"I really feel like I can be myself and share all aspects of my life, faith being the most important thing in my life," Clark said. "And I think it's really hard in a public setting, you can't share as much. I still did share, but not nearly as much as you can."
The team prays before and after each practice and regularly reads quotes from the Bible, Church said.
"It's really a big deal for us," he said.
As a private school, Tolton is an outlier in Columbia, but Clark said he looks forward to becoming a part of the local athletic culture.
"It's been 40-plus years in the making to have a Catholic high school here in town that has high expectations for student athletes, and all students and a faith-based environment," he said. "We're doing it in a first-class manner. It's gonna take time and it's gonna take a lot of work, but we're gonna be right there."