Students at The Rock School attend chapel on Monday mornings. By the afternoon, they get to see their basketball team showcase some of the best players in the state.
The private K-12 Christian school has a student body of just over 500 students but has garnered one of the best basketball teams in the state.
“It’s just been God-ordained because I’ve been able to coach some really talented players over the years,” said The Rock head coach Justin Harden.
When The Rock players arrived at their first home game last month, they commanded the attention of the gym the moment they entered. Several starters have garnered national attention from Division I colleges and universities, and the moment they start playing, it is evident why.
They towered over their opponents, Potters House Christian School, and shot the ball over defenders at will. Players like Kameren Wright and Ryan Jones constantly made dribble moves to create space and hit shots. The team controlled the pace and flexed its prowess.
Banners showcasing championships and former players who have gone on to play professionally or at the collegiate level serve as the backdrop to the human highlight reels. Nearly every inch of the gym walls is covered in banners featuring the names of past star players.
While the team has drawn significant buzz for the caliber of its players, it’s nothing new for Head Coach Justin Harden and the players he’s brought into this school.
Harden, 42, has been the head coach of The Rock men’s basketball team since 2009. He’s won more than 250 games and four Sunshine Independent Athletic Association state championships. Among the players he has coached are former Florida Gator Scottie Wilbekin and five-time NBA All-Star Joel Embiid.
He said he is blessed to be in the opportunity he’s in, Harden said. After graduating from the University of Florida, he aspired to coach high school basketball but didn’t know when the proper chance would come.
Harden attended church at The Rock of Gainesville and found out the school’s basketball team needed help with coaches. He heard the team had some international players on the roster, he said, and saw a chance to help spread the Gospel as a coach on the team. After starting as an assistant coach at The Rock, he got his chance to move into the head coaching position when former head coach Svend Wilbekin stepped down.
Although his original plan was to coach at a public school and be a physical education teacher, Harden has embraced his journey at The Rock.
With The Rock’s smaller student body, Harden has been able to connect directly with his students and players. Harden and his team relish in each other and grow closer through God, he said. It is a unique opportunity not available at most high schools.
The team is a mix of students from Gainesville and around the country. Because The Rock is a private school, the coaches can recruit players from throughout the country and the world.
The team this season features students from France and the Congo. This gives the Gainesville players a chance to learn from other cultures, Harden said.
Two players who exemplify the team’s talent and unique makeup are Sammie Yeanay and Ryan “RJ” Jones Jr.
Yeanay, 16, is a junior and played for several schools before coming to The Rock. His last stop before arriving in Gainesville was Minnesota.
He is a four-star power forward who ranks as the 10th-best player in Florida as of November 18, according to 247 Sports. Yeanay has received offers from six schools, including the University of Florida, the University of Houston and the University of Alabama.
Jones Jr. is a Gainesville native who is also a four-star power forward. He ranks as the seventh-best player in the state and 38th in the country as of November 18, according to 247 Sports, which ranks high school football and basketball players. He has received offers from nine schools, including the University of Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Illinois.
Jones Jr. said it was great not just to play for a coach but also to learn about God in the classroom, he said.
With the amount of time the players spend at the school, Harden said, the coaches and teachers get the chance to have a real impact on them. It’s been a joy to be able to partner with God through his impact on the team, Harden said.
Other key players on this squad include Gainesville native Dallas Jones, Evan Sterck from St. Louis and Kamerern Wright from St. Petersburg.
The players said they were thankful for the chance to play for a school that gives them the best opportunity to play at the collegiate level.
Yeanay said that, besides basketball, The Rock offered him a chance to grow as a person. The fact that the younger students look up to them helps him and his team learn to be more mature, Yeanay said.
The leap to join an elite program was due to the school’s resources and Harden’s pedigree as a coach.
Sterck, a 16-year-old sophomore, said his former school shut down. His old coach knew Harden and helped Sterck with him, and it didn’t take long for Sterck’s family to sell their home and move to Gainesville so Sterck could play for the elite program, he said.
The team has drawn the eyes of many, including college coaches. Wright, a 16-year-old junior, said it’s a blessing to have so many college coaches and players coming in and out of their gym to watch them.
“At my old school, I never played in front of a [college] coach,” Wright said.
Jones, an 18-year-old senior, is the team’s oldest player and captain. He came to the team as a freshman and felt the team didn’t want him initially but said it was Harden and the rest of the coaching staff who empowered him and showed him love.
“They took me in,” Jones said. “They boosted me up with confidence.”
Harden said he felt Jones could be the next player for whom the school hangs a banner. Unlike most of the other players whose time at The Rock varies, Jones spent all four years of high school with the team, and Harden was excited about his future, Harden said.
The team’s expectations and immense talent created pressure in different ways, Harden said. While he wanted to win games, the biggest pressure came in the form of getting his guys prepared for college, he said.
His biggest challenge was whether he could take advantage of the time he spent with his players in practice, in class and on team trips to maximize their potential as people and as basketball players.
“Whether we win or lose, disappointment comes, elation comes, but it also fades,” Harden said.
Despite the school’s consistently high rankings in the state, they are overshadowed by other schools, including IMG Academy and Montverde Academy.
It’s been easier to focus on basketball and avoid the distractions of a larger school, Yeanay said.
While Harden wished his school would get the same notoriety as other elite basketball high schools in the state, he understands it can be more difficult in a city dominated by all things Florida Gators.
There is only so much he can control, Harden said. He wanted to ensure his team was giving its best effort, and whatever media attention came along with it was great. Even when his team has had success, it’s been hard to garner more attention.
“Sometimes we do a really good job, and it’s like, dang, nobody even knows about us,” Harden said.
Even though his team did not get as much attention as other schools in north central Florida, Harden said he was proud of the number of student-athletes Harden has sent to the collegiate level. The Rock has had a player go on to play in college nearly every year he’s coached, he said.
“That’s really rare, especially in Alachua County, where you’re not going to get a lot of Division I players,” Harden said.
As a new season begins, The Rock will look to repeat as SIAA state champions, but for Harden, there will be a bigger goal for his players throughout the year. He returns to the original intent he had when he started at The Rock, which is to mold his players into men who can take on the daily obstacles of life, he said.
“The pressure of winning a particular game pales in comparison to becoming the human being that God has destined you to be and who we want to see you become,” Harden said.