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Henry Sibley point guard Julius Johnson went through some difficult times on the way to this season. Now the team is off to its best start in three years. Photo by Marlin Levison • mlevison@startribune.com

Henry Sibley carries a rich, winning basketball tradition. Wearing the jersey carries a lot of weight and responsibility through the school's halls. But just because the program has a successful history doesn't mean it comes easy. Just ask senior starting point guard Julius Johnson.

When Johnson was a sophomore, the Warriors went 6-16 overall in 2010-2011 and finished seventh out of nine teams in the Classic Suburban conference. It was an eye-opener.

"It really showed me that we had to work harder to get better," Johnson said. "We had never experienced having a bad season like that, being under .500."

It also marked Lernell James's first year as head coach. James has seen steady progress since then. The Warriors improved to 14-12 overall and 9-7 in conference play last season. This season they are off to their best start in three years.

After losing the first two games, they won the next five. The coach credits their strong start to hard work and a veteran lineup. Eighteen players -- nine seniors and nine juniors -- make up the varsity and junior varsity teams.

"I have a lot of experience in my locker room this season," James said. "All the guys who took their lumps the last two seasons have grown up and turned into real leaders and mentors to the class behind them."

The Warriors kicked off conference play with a 52-46 win over rival St. Thomas Academy on Dec. 21. It was the Warriors' fifth consecutive victory.

A couple of weeks ago, Tartan head coach Mark Klingsporn called Henry Sibley the favorite to win the Classic Suburban Conference, even though most considered the defending champion Titans the team to beat. The two squads tip off on Jan. 8 in what should be a dandy.

Aside from experience, the Warriors carry size and athleticism. Johnson is lightning quick and difficult for opposing defenses to contain. He also has averaged three steals per game. Senior post player Nick Golberg is the 6-6 anchor in the middle.

Adam Huessner is averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game. If healthy, the 6-3 senior could reach the 1,000-point school scoring milestone in mid-January. Zach Haas is the team's best defender and leads the squad in three-point field goal percentage. Haas is averaging just under 12 points per game.

Kessler Geschwill, the team's "Mr. Versatility,'' rounds out the starting lineup. The 6-4 senior can play as a guard and a post player and defend opposing players at each position. He can shoot the three-pointer and is a solid rebounder on top of it all.

Off the bench, 6-7 junior post Mark Pumper creates havoc for opposing teams. He can rebound and handle the ball like a guard when needed. Pumper is averaging nearly 12 points per game. Senior Dion Garcia-Star, the team's most explosive and athletic player, is a tenacious defender.

A strong start has signaled Henry Sibley basketball is back where it needs to be.

"We're determined to do better this year," Johnson said. "Back to our old ways."

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Tag(s): Featured  Star Tribune  History  Metro East  Henry Sibley  St. Thomas Academy  Tartan