Donnie Johnson has a special bond with his senior boys basketball players at Omaha Benson.
A little more than three years ago, they were incoming ninth-graders and he was equally green as the school’s new coach. Johnson was hired only a month before school started.
“We’ve built a relationship from the start,” said Johnson, a former Creighton player.
After the school’s second state tournament appearance in three seasons, extending a string of winning seasons to seven, Benson could replace perennial state champion Omaha Central as the team to beat in Class A.
The Bunnies are the preseason favorites in Class A and start out at No. 1 in the Top 10, which tries to predict the state champion.
“We’re hoping we can hold that ranking all year,” leading scorer Khyri Thomas said.
Their tests start immediately: a game Thursday night at No. 3 Omaha South, a possible matchup Saturday against No. 2 Central at South and a game Tuesday against No. 5 Omaha Westside.
“It’s the best way to start,” Johnson said. “Just get all the Top 10 teams out of the gate.
“Being No. 1 is a challenge, but it’s also a compliment to this team because people are considering them as the potential No. 1 team in the state.”
Benson went 0-3 against South last year.
“We know each other very well that it’s become a rivalry,” Johnson said.
Thomas, a 6-foot-4 guard-forward, is a third-year starter who averaged 16 points and led the Bunnies in assists last year. The rest of the all-senior lineup consists of 6-9 Thik Bol, 6-6 Tyree Peter, 6-foot Maurice Buckley and 5-6 Mike Bradley.
Peter averaged 10 points last year and is the team’s top returning rebounder.
“With Thik and Tyree at the rim,” Thomas said, “opponents have to wonder what they have to do next.”
Thomas could be a Division I recruit. Johnson said Old Dominion and James Madison are among the schools outside the region showing interest.
For this season, Johnson said Thomas needs to continue being a leader and “a coach on the floor.”
Thomas, who said he needs to be a more aggressive defender, believes he’ll be more comfortable in a leadership role because he’s a senior. He said the team needs to communicate as well on defense as it does when on offense.
Johnson said he expects improvement in the team just from gaining another year of maturity.
“It’s their fourth year in the system” he said. “Having that experience, they lead by example for the younger guys coming up.”