Branson Jedi: Coach Jonas Honick Hits 700 Career Wins
There are 34.0 seconds left in the 2019 MCAL boys basketball championship, a game Jonas Honick’s Branson Bulls have chased from the opening tip.
It’s been one of those nights. Missed layups follow turnovers, punctuated by disbelieving looks from white-clad Branson players on the court and fans in the stands. For the game’s first eight minutes, nearly everything Redwood tosses up finds the net.
The top-seeded Bulls produce only two first quarter stops, unheard of for a Honick-coached defense. At its nadir, the deficit reaches 15.
Hours of sharing knowledge, preparation, admonitions to value each possession: they don’t always lead to a successful outcome.
And yet, Branson now inbounds the ball down only one, 36-37. The team refocused, found its poise, as Jonas says. It’s what he likes about this group. “They’ve really been locked in every game this year—maybe not for an entire game, but certainly for three quarters.”
Tonight the Bulls can’t fully marshal themselves until the second half. Still, it might be enough.
They run their play, the one Honick demonstrated at the 3:30PM walk through. He had premonitions of a nail biter: a game they’d have to claw into after failing to match the Giants’ initial intensity.
MCAL player of the year Viktor Rajkovic drives right. A second defender arrives. He finds junior guard Peyton Mullarkey in the corner, just like they drew it up. It’s been an off night for the all-league sharp shooter. He has zero points.
The pass is high. Peyton isn’t the tallest. He catches it deep in the corner behind the three-point line, sets instantly, and lets it fly. The ball snaps the net — swish.
Branson’s student section erupts. More than half the student body must pack the south side of the gym. There’s pandemonium on the bench and a flurry of activity on the court as Redwood inbounds with one more chance for the upset.
Two people appear calm—perhaps the only ones in Redwood’s Phil Roark Gymnasium. Honick’s wife, Donna Mezias, records the basket in the official record book. She’s keeping score for the team tonight, as she has for much of his career. It’s no problem to focus during the big moments; she’s been there for all of his.
Honick himself, still holding the whiteboard, points out a defensive assignment.
The ball gets deflected. Senior all-MCAL first-teamer Will Jacobsen dives on the floor. Peyton ends up with possession before getting fouled. He hits the free throws. Redwood buries a three as time expires, but it’s over. Branson students storm center court. Bulls win 41-40.
700 and Counting
For Honick it’s Branson win number 710 and his fifth postseason MCAL championship: another success for the team and their legendary coach—not that Jonas keeps careful track of those details. (A few games after the fact, a friend let him know he’d reached the 700-win milestone in January.)
“Honick's like a Jedi,” Peyton says of his coach. “He knew it was going to be close at the end and he anticipated.”
That Jedi comparison seems especially apt for this game, and not only because the venerable coach and history teacher is a Star Wars fan. Tonight he seems downright stoic when compared to the sometimes incandescent figure who led Branson to three straight Division V state titles between 2006-2008.
A decade after the three-peat, Honick looks strikingly similar, crossing and uncrossing his arms on the sideline: the twinkling blue eyes with a hint of flint, the characteristic dark suit and loafers. But the demeanor has changed.
There’s nothing resembling the signature Jonas stomp that greeted blunders of 10 years ago, much less the double or triple stomp. His wife is a lawyer, so she won’t swear to it, but Mezias can’t recall one since he returned to coaching the Bulls in 2016.
“I’m not in nearly as good of shape as I used to be,” Honick laughs. “I have to pick my spots when I expend a lot of energy. It’s not spilling out all over the place.”
Those closest to him have noticed a difference. At a recent game, Jonas went jacketless, swapping his dress shoes for a pair of Air Jordans. It’s a tradition he started with his staff last year at matinees, just for fun.
“I do think he generally is more mellow and relaxed,” Mezias says.
She truly would know best, having been there since this coaching odyssey started—back in the Bay County League days, when Jonas wasn’t far removed from playing hoops at Harvard. (In fact, Mezias could claim she launched it, having convinced Honick to take the Branson job after the mortified young coach discovered the school didn’t yet have a full-size gym.
“I thought, okay, I can do three years,” he says.
That was 1980. The Last year of the Carter Administration. The Pittsburgh-area native has been a Branson and Marin fixture since.
Two others have witnessed most of Honick’s coaching tenure, combining their gym rat and rug rat phases at Branson basketball practices, before eventually attending and graduating from the school.
“He’s nicer,” says Isaiah Honick ‘07, Jonas and Donna’s son.
“He’s so much nicer,” says Rachel Honick ‘03, their daughter.
The year before a third CIF title capped a remarkable run of three consecutive league and state championships, Honick was already planning to retire, feeling he’d burned brightly for too long. But he decided to stick it out for a last hurrah with a squad led by Oliver McNally ‘08, the reigning Division V player of the year.
“He kept on telling everybody he was going to climb a mountain and get a dog [after the season],” Oliver says. “Hang out on the top of a mountain and not talk to anybody.”
When history repeated itself, that’s more or less what he did. The Bulls won a rugged state title game 40-33 over Renaissance of La Canada, and Oliver again received player of the year honors. Honick walked off the court with Mezias into the proverbial sunset.
They vacationed together. He climbed mountains in Nepal. The perfect ending with a dog was a little more complicated—he’s allergic— but Santiago, who like Jonas may have some pit bull in him, lives in Seattle with Isaiah.
The time away was great. But he missed the guys, the gym, sharing his love for the game. At times, he helped out with Redwood girls basketball. In 2016 after some deliberations he returned to the Branson varsity boys bench.
An old coach with a new bearing. Credit the perspective that comes with age or time away from the game, or perhaps the security of an established legacy. Whatever the reason, the pressures don’t seem to be as great. He’s just focusing on making this group better.
“I had my day in the sun,” Honick says. “I don’t need to replicate it.”
And yet, in many ways, he’s still the same Jonas.
“The passion and competitiveness are still there.” Donna Mezias says. “He still likes to win. That’s always the case.”
Her son agrees. “At the core, I don’t think he’s that different,” Isaiah says. “The attention to detail, the fire, and in a way the paranoia—which kind of fuels the preparation—that’s all still there.”
And if he’s not a Jedi, he might just be clairvoyant.
“He has an uncanny ability to think of anything that can go wrong, to worry about everything, which makes his preparation so meticulous and the standard really high for his practices,” Isaiah says. “He always feels like it’s on a knife’s edge. Even when it’s not.”
The 2019 MCAL championship certainly was on that edge.
“It was a great high school moment for [Peyton] and for the kids,” Jonas says. It reminds him of another big shot in Branson history.
“I told Peyton in front of the team the story of Isaiah not having a very good game—on a lot of levels—his senior year in the state championship.”
He’d missed shots, turned the ball over, had uncharacteristic lapses on defense. “But he hung in there,” Honick says.
Down seven with less than two minutes to go, Branson got a score and a stop, before Oliver McNally brought the ball down for a draw and kick. “They left Isaiah alone,” Jonas says. “He buries a three and it’s a two-point game with a minute to go.”
Another bucket pushes the game to overtime, where Isaiah makes six free throws and the Bulls corral state title number two.
There’s a lesson in that, Jonas concludes. “The reason you’re able to make that shot, even when things aren’t going well, is you’ve practiced it so many times,” he says to Peyton and the team. “There was no doubt. All the hard work paid off, all the hours he put in the gym for that moment.”
Teammates thought the ball was going in the instant it left his hand.
“It felt like any other shot,” Peyton says. “Until after I made it. That's when the gravity of it all kicked it in. Looking back, I probably should have been more nervous.”
Generous to the Core
Isaiah’s clutch three-pointer came more than 10 years and 100 wins ago. The gap between Honick’s 600th and his 700th Branson victory, a 65-33 win against Drake on January 12, puts him in the top-20 of Cal-Hi Sports’ list of California’s all-time winningest high school boys basketball coaches.
“I’ve long said he’s the best coach in Northern California, maybe ever, and the 700 itself speaks to his longevity,” Oliver McNally says. “He’s been the mark of success in the 80s, 90s, 2000s, and in 2010s. It’s nuts when you take a step back.”
News of number 700 came as a surprise to current players, many of whom found out during a ceremony commemorating the milestone days later. Honick and even Mezias didn’t know until Prep2Prep scribe Harold Abend told them at Marin Joe’s a few games later.
Rachel found out from her mom. Jonas doesn’t really bring up records with anyone, even family. “I was surprised that it was only 700,” she laughs. “You forget he took eight years off.” She’s not surprised the achievement snuck up on everyone.
“It’s not about that. It’s always been about the kids,” she says. “What’s special about Jonas is he gets to know his players, his kids on an individual basis—gets to know them and how to inspire them.”
For Honick, those relationships have made his career. “Coaching, teaching, it’s still one on one,” he says. “You have to make a connection. You should find common ground, although there’s probably stubbornness on both sides.”
For Rachel, there’s a little more to it.
“There are not many people who are so passionate about what they believe in and what they love, but also generous to the point where they want to share that passion,” she says.
“At the core of Jonas is generosity. That’s at the heart of everything he does.”
A Coach, Always
It’s well after 10pm. The 2019 MCAL boys championship has joined the great moments of Branson basketball history. As they often do, Jonas and Donna head to Marin Joe’s after the game. He’s finally off the clock, but not done coaching.
Inside he spots a Redwood freshman with her family. Her team just suffered a heartbreaking loss prior to the boys’ championship. A nine-point lead evaporated into a one point loss. She missed free throws down the stretch.
Jonas goes over to chat. He tells the player and her dad the story of Peyton’s shot: not the one he made tonight, but the one he missed as a freshman.
It was Branson's last chance against Cloverdale. If he makes it, Bulls win; if he misses, they lose. Peyton is wide open a few steps behind the three point line, well within his range.
“It rimmed in, rimmed out,” Honick says. “Didn’t define who he was, didn’t crush him. He just made sure next time that he was going to make it. “
If she sticks with it, she’ll have another shot. Preparation, practice, focus, attention to detail: they’ll create more chances for success.
It’s been his message all along.