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West Orange Times & Observer Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022 3 weeks ago

FORECAST: Trusting the Process: CFCA coach Andrew Gustafson keeps Eagles on top

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Gustafson helped change the Eagles’ culture into one that has produced long-lasting success since his arrival in 2013.
by: Chris Martucci Sports Editor

What does it take to build a winning program after hitting the lowest point you could possibly hit?   

There is no clear answer. Sometimes, it’s getting a great player or two. Other times, it’s getting the right coach for the right time. 

Such was the case for Central Florida Christian Academy’s boys basketball team in 2013.

At the time, CFCA was a small Christian school struggling to compete with other schools in the area that had better funding or better facilities for athletes to grow. When it did manage to get someone good, it usually wouldn’t be long before that athlete would opt to leave for another, more competitive, school. After an abysmal 1-24 season in the 2013-14 season, which was on the backs of a 2-23 season the year before, it was going to take a miracle of a hire to resurrect this team and program. Then-assistant coach Andrew Gustafson was hired as part of an entirely new coaching staff, headed by Jonathan McClintock. They were starting at the bottom and knew it was going to be a long process to get up to the level the coaching staff believed the kids could reach.

“It takes an army to make this whole thing work,” Gustafson said. “All of us coaches working together and with the kids. It’s a complete team effort, and the kids understand that as well. It’s been a great ride.” 

Gustafson was not the only new face brought in prior to the 2013 fall season. Athletic Director Kyle Wills also was new to the CFCA environment. Knowing he, too, was inheriting a program desperately in need of a jolt, it was time to get to work. 

That started with improving the culture of the school and athletics. 

“We’re a long way from where we want to be, but the key has been being fortunate to get coaches who have bought into the mission of this place,” Wills said. “They believe, and that culture has been passed down to the kids who are doing the same thing. We have been fortunate and blessed to have coaches who have come in to do the hard work.” 

With a brand-new coaching staff, this was perhaps the start of a new beginning for CFCA basketball. 

They had no idea just what kind of ride they had just boarded — one that would take the Eagles to heights they had never seen before. 

BRED TO COACH

Coaching runs in Gustafson’s family. His uncle was a coach, and another member of his family served as an athletic director. So it was no surprise he would carry on the family tradition.

“I’ve had a passion for coaching for as long as I can remember,” Gustafson said. “It’s always been there, and it was just a natural thing for me to do once I stopped playing. I like being with the kids and making a difference in their lives.” 

During his playing days, Gustafson was quite a player. While at Kane Area High School in Kane, Pennsylvania, he became the school’s all-time leading scorer, a record which he still holds today, and scored 1,000 points in his high school career. Gustafson went on to play at Houghton College, an NAIA school in New York his son, Rece, also attended. 

As good of a player he was, Gustafson knew coaching was what he ultimately wanted to do. He bounced around as an assistant coach for several programs before arriving in Florida.

When CFCA came calling in 2013, he did not hesitate to answer. For several years, Gustafson wanted to get back to the high school ranks after coaching travel basketball teams. He knew CFCA was a rebuild. And he was ready.

“We want to play the right way,” Gustafson said of the culture he wanted to instill. “That’s the only way to play. When you play the right way, a lot of good things will happen to you. It’s the way life is as well, and that’s what we want to teach the kids. It’s more than just basketball — it’s hitting all areas of life so that when these kids walk out of here, they’re set for life.” 

That message hit home immediately. In the new regime’s first year at the helm, CFCA went from one win to 23 wins. The team won a playoff game against Meadowbrook Academy before losing to Agape Christian Academy, which also beat the Eagles in the district tournament. 

That was just the beginning.

A RUN LIKE NONE OTHER

As the 2021 season turns to 2022, CFCA basketball has amassed a run of excellence few schools in the area have been able to replicate. The team is known for playing a high-tempo style of play very reminiscent of UNLV during the early days of Jerry Tarkanian and Houston’s Phi Slama Jama in the 80s. They feature plenty of fast-breaks, big dunks and excitement for the fans who come to the gym at CFCA or watch them on the road.

Ever since the 2014 season, the Eagles have won at least 20 games in six of seven seasons, won six consecutive district championships and went to the Final Four for the first time in 2018. 

In 2019, the team did something no CFCA team had been able to do to that point: Win a state championship. With a 71-67 victory over North Florida Educational Institute, the Eagles completed the journey from a team that had been 1-24 just six years prior to a state champion. 

Gustafson said the biggest takeaway from that victory was that all the work done to build the culture was working — and then some. 

“Any time you win a state championship, that’s going to do wonders for your program, but it was the culmination of years of hard work,” Gustafson said. “It’s a process — no matter what. We’re still not where we want to be yet, but we are definitely getting there.” 

Exactly one season after that state championship, Gustafson was given the keys to the metaphorical Porsche and told not to crash it after being named the head coach when McClintock left. Being given the freedom to run the team his way hasn’t changed the way he has coached during the three years at the helm. He still believes in hard work and putting in the extra work in the gym when other teams won’t do it. 

“The boys do all the work, but we’re happy with how the rest of the school has bought in,” Gustafson said. “They keep the gym open for us, and the boys all go in and get extra work in during lunch or whenever they can. I can’t be more thankful for their support.” 

A WIDER IMPACT

Wills has seen the rest of the school feed off the basketball team’s success, as well. During the fall, the Eagles football team won its first home playoff game and went to the second round of the playoffs for the first time ever. 

Part of ensuring that success for him is allowing the coaches to do their jobs without him being a micromanager. 

“I trust them with those jobs,” Wills said. “I let them coach and not get in the way. They’ve blossomed as a result, and the kids have responded to that. They’re our No. 1 focus above all, but it’s the coaches that are the reason we’re successful.” 

Not to be outdone, the CFCA girls basketball team has started making a name for itself as well under head coach Blessing Freeman. The team won its first nine games and, as of press time Tuesday, sits with an 11-2 record.

“Great culture and great people,” Gustafson said. “(Freeman) and I work closely together, so to see them having success is awesome.” 

The Eagles boys team is still on track to win 20 games once again, but the most important thing for Gustafson is seeing his athletes continuing to thrive. This group of players is the first team he has developed on his own, which makes it even more special for him. 

“They’re such great kids, and it’s awesome to see them play as well as they have,” Gustafson said. “They’re so unselfish and play together well as a team. They don’t care who scores, so long as the team gets the win. That’s what makes me the most proud.” 

The team plays Pine Ridge Friday, Jan. 7, in its second game of the new year. 

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Chris Martucci is the sports editor for the West Orange Times & Observer,  Southwest Orange Observer and OrangeObserver.com. He holds a master's degree in journalism from the University of Missouri — Columbia School of Journalism, as well as a bachelor's degree in...

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