Last winter, Millbrook was finally able to break a three-year stranglehold that Handley had over area Class 4 boys’ basketball teams.
The Pioneers not only swept the Class 4 Northwestern District regular-season and tournament titles, but they advanced to the state semifinals before falling to Woodrow Wilson.
Fast forward to this COVID-19 affected season which has been delayed into January and Millbrook finds itself in a similar situation that the Judges faced last year. The Pioneers were hit hard by graduation. Millbrook lost 10 seniors, including its entire starting lineup and most of its critical reserves.
Now, it’s the rest of the local teams which seem to have experience on their side. Handley, which finished in a three-way tie for second last season with James Wood and Liberty, returns all but one senior, including reigning Winchester Star Player of the Year and second team All-State selection Demitri Gardner. Sherando, which finished at the bottom of the league, brings back its entire roster. James Wood, which did lose multiple starters, returns multiple players who saw major action.
Given the constraints of the proposed abbreviated season, area coaches feel like experience could be huge factor in determining a district champion.
“Handley is a deep team and reminds me a little bit of what we had last year — a bunch of juniors who are now seniors,” Millbrook second-year coach Steve Grubbs said. “They didn’t really lose much at all and Sherando’s the same way. They have a whole giant group of kids back. To me those two are kind of the front-runners right now because of experience. The rest of us I think we have lost one, two, three, four or in our case 10 pieces. You are looking at who is going to plug in and who is going to play.
“I think it’s an open race for the most part,” added Grubbs. “Obviously, the experience factor favors you, especially in a season like this. We’re excited for the opportunity. If the season comes like it’s scheduled to, we will be ready.”
“Our guys are extremely motivated,” said Handley first-year coach Zach Harrell, who inherited a veteran team from Jason Toton (now at Woodgrove). “I think if you look at last year, I can’t tell you the last time that John Handley lost to Sherando, James Wood and Millbrook in the same year. I think guys are motivated to get back on track to be ahead of the pack. I think it’s inspired some guys, but I think in any given year the district is wide open. … It’s about who’s hungry and who is at their best in February.”
“I think it’s going to be very competitively balanced,” James Wood’s Tim Wygant said. “… I think it’s going to be a lot like last year. Everyone is even. Everyone is going to have the capability of beating everyone else. I expect there to be a relative logjam. The team that comes together the fastest and has the most experience together, they are the ones that are going to be on top at the end of the year.”
Millbrook (21-8 last season) lost every major statistical leader, including second team All-State standout Julien Hagerman, to graduation last season. Diante Ball, a reserve, is the only returning player who saw major minutes, with Quinten Jones getting some playing time, too.
“We’re young, there’s no doubt about it,” said Grubbs. “Diante is definitely our most experienced returner and Jones is right there, too. He played a little bit last year off and on. Then you have three kids that were juniors last year who are now seniors who are looking to step up and contribute. Then, we have a lot of kids who were on our JV team that in any normal cycle are probably playing varsity last year. But given our deep senior class, we thought it was best to put them on the JV team and get them minutes. I know they are excited for the opportunity. We have a couple of kids who are sophomores this year and they are in the same boat.”
Having lost all of its scoring leaders, Millbrook will be looking for new faces to put the ball in the hoop.
“Honestly, I take it from whoever wants to,” Grubbs said. “Scoring to me that is one of those things that if you are doing things the right way that on any given night it really shouldn’t matter. Quinten Jones has made a leap. Detric Brown is another one we’re very excited for. Diante is going to have to step up and we’re looking for contributions from all over. I don’t think we’re going to have anyone average 25 a night. That’s not how we design things. We’re not looking for 25, we’re looking for 10. … I’ll take the collective over the individual any day of the week.”
Despite so many losses, Grubbs said the deep state run last year has impacted the program. “What it does is it helps set a standard,” Grubbs said of last season’s success. “It’s one of those things where you want to get back. They don’t want to go into their senior and junior seasons and lower whatever they felt last year.”
Looking to get back on top, Handley certainly returns the area’s best player in Gardner. The 6-foot-5 Gardner averaged an area-best 22.5 points as a junior, more than eight points higher than the area runner-up, while shooting 50.3 percent from the floor. Gardner, whose nickname is “Meech” was also second in the area in rebounding (8.3).
“Demitri looks outstanding,” Harrell said. “He’s been, as a lot of our guys have been, training at FASST training. … I think when you see our guys on the floor this year just how different their bodies look. … Meech is up to 210 now. He looks super solid and is jumping a lot higher. … I grew up in Winchester and I think he is one of the most talented scorers that we’ve had in the last decade.”
The Judges’ problem last season was that Gardner had to do the bulk of the scoring. Gardner netted 517 total points, while no other Handley player scored more than 166.
Harrell says this season the Judges will get more balance because he is turning up the pace. “I think you’ll see maybe double the amount of possessions in the game this year than there were last year.” Harrell said. “Obviously, that equates to more scoring opportunities. … If you just key on Demitri this year, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Harrell said Chaz Lattimore will be another Judge to benefit from the pace of play. Lattimore has grown to nearly 6-4 and is getting college looks.
“Chaz Lattimore is the one who has really blown up this summer,” Harrell said. “He grew another inch or two and he’s even longer. He did a windmill dunk in the gym the other day. He’s put on 10 or 15 pounds of solid muscle. He’s got over 10 Division III schools, just about every ODAC school, looking at him.”
The Judges also are very athletic. Football standouts Stephen Daley and Jayden Vardaro are also among a deep rotation. “We literally have eight guys dunking the basketball,” Harrell said. “At the 4A level, it’s hard to find that. We’ve got some really solid athletes this year. It just doesn’t come around like this every year.”
And Harrell can’t wait to get started. “I haven’t been able to sleep at all since I got the job,” he said. “I’m so excited to work with our guys. It’s been hard for me to get my mind off it. I’ve actually talked to a lot of mentors of mine about some ways I can take my mind off of it because I’m so excited.”
While James Wood lost four of his top six scorers, Wygant has multiple players returning who led the Colonels in scoring during individual games last season.
“We had three or four games where a ‘bench players’ stepped into starting roles and really contributed,” said Wygant whose team rebounded from a 1-21 mark the previous season to finish 13-10. “There was a string of games where … we had all different scorers and they were all bench players and we’re bringing all of them back. There’s a lot of experience and playing time under the belts there.”
Senior guard Jacob Medina (8.3) is the Colonels’ leading returning scorer. Jaden Ashby, Carson Baker, Connor Ballentine and Elijah Boggs have also proven on any given night that they can provide points for a club that looks for strong man-to-man defense leading to points.
“In terms of just scoring the basketball, we’re probably going to be looking at Jacob Medina to take an increased percentage of shots this year, but to be perfectly honest we’re gong to be scoring a lot of the same ways that we have the last couple of years,” Wygant said. “It’s going to be any number of guys on any given night. Spread the ball around. We haven’t really had a guy who is going to score 15, 16, 18 points a game. Our leading scorer from year-to-year is typically 9, 10, 11 points. Our second one is a maybe point behind him and the third one is one or two points behind there. We’re probably going to do a lot of the same things.
“We’re going to try to get the ball into the hands of whoever is hot that night. And to perfectly honest, I don’t know who is going to be hot at the end of the night. That’s kind of the luxury I have with the group that’s coming back to us.”
By the looks of its record, you would say Sherando (5-18) wasn’t very competitive last season, but 12 of the Warriors’ 18 losses came by eight points or less.
“It just seemed like we couldn’t get over the hump a couple of times with those real close games,” Sherando coach Garland Williams said. “We did improve and that was the main thing. We told them at the end of the year that we’ve got to get everybody back and do some things. … Hopefully we get a chance to play because I think this is one of the better teams that we’ve had in awhile.”
Williams suffered no major losses from last season. He returns powerful and versatile Keli Lawson (headed to Virginia Tech on a football scholarship) in the post. Lawson led the area last season in rebounding (9.1), was second in assists (2.9) and blocked shots (1.7), third in steals (1.8) and fourth in scoring (13.0).
Cole Armel was third in the area in scoring (13.1) and fourth in rebounding (6.2). Williams returns several starters and brings up a some players from the JV level that he thinks will contribute.
“We feel like we can be right up there,” Williams said of the district race.
Clarke County may actually be the first area team to get on the court. Unlike other area schools, the Eagles officially have been practicing and are scheduled to open play on Friday if the school board approves.
The Eagles (10-14) lost leading scorer and rebounder Volkan Ergen among others, but return a solid core. Ellis Nei (8.8 points and 1.9 assists per game) improved throughout the season. Nei had 23 points in a Bull Run District quarterfinal playoff win.
“Ellis has gotten a lot better,” Clarke County coach Brent Emmart said. “All of the guys coming back have gotten a lot better and a lot stronger. They have worked on their games in the offseason. We’re looking forward to the season this year.”
Luke Lyman, a 6-4 junior, will be a threat inside. Brendan Moyer and Diante Trammell return from last year’s squad and Emmart expects newcomers from last season’s JV team to assume bigger roles.
“We have a nice squad,” he said. “We have to hopefully get some games in. It’s just going to be a challenging year with all of the regulations and just the unknowns of each day.”
With 6-8 junior Tyler Nickel, a four-star recruit with scholarship offers from ACC, Big Ten and SEC schools, East Rockingham is the favorite in the Bull Run.
“It looks like East Rock by far is the favored team,” Emmart said. “Everybody else is trying to get to where they are, but I’d like to think we can compete with everybody in the league. East Rock is going to be a challenge for everyone.”
Here is a capsule look at the area teams:
Head coach: Steve Grubbs, second season
Last year: 21-8 overall, 12-2 Class 4 Northwestern District, district regular-season and tournament champions, Class 4 semifinalist
Key losses: Julien Hagerman, Tyson Stewart, Jordan Jackson, Ben Oates, Tarelle Hayden, Michael Robertson, T.J. Spain, Kaden Buza
Top returning players: Quinten Jones (Sr., G), Diante Ball (Sr., F), Detric Brown (So., G), Sebastian Tringali (Sr., G), Harrison Madagan (Sr., F), Jayden Banks (Sr., C)
Top newcomers: Braden George (Jr., G), Noah Swartz (So., F)
Grubbs’ outlook: “We’re just looking to get better. Every single day in practice, we’re looking to get better. We’re looking to do things well in games. It’s just to improve. To me, that’s what you’re looking to do regardless of what your team is. Preseason expectations are awesome, but they are just that — a guess. I want to see them come in, compete with each other, push each other and then see what we can do on the court. Everyone in my eyes is in the same situation right now. None of us has been barely able to practice or do anything as a school team. To me, anything is possible this year.”
Head coach: Zach Harrell, first season
Last year: 12-12 overall, 8-6 Class 4 Northwestern District
Key losses: Nick Hott
Top returning players: Demitri Gardner (Sr., G), Chaz Lattimore (Sr., G), K’mani Curry (Sr., G), Ethan Schwantes (Sr., F), Emerson Fusco (So., PG), Stephen Daley (Jr., F), Jayden Vardaro (Sr., F), Matthew Peete (Sr., G), Isaac Menefee (Sr., G).
Top newcomers: Tavon Long (Jr., G), Carson Harris (Jr., G), Jacob Duffy (Jr., G).
Harrell’s outlook: “We have so many seniors coming back, so many of them them that have played basketball together for a long time. We have a lot of talented guys. We’ve got four guys (Gardner, Lattimore, Curry and Schwantes) that have major interest already of playing college basketball. I think any time you get a team with that many guys, who not only have aspirations to play at the next level, but coaches who want them to play at the next level, you’ve got the makings to be a really good team. What I have been with the most in the offseason and the workouts we’ve been able to do with them … is just how unselfish guys seem to be this year. I think they’re really after the year and the really tough losses that came from last year. Anytime, you get a group with this many seniors I think the aspirations are high to make a run in the postseason.”
Head coach: Tim Wygant, eighth season
Last year: 13-10 overall, 8-6 Class 4 Northwestern District
Key losses: James Cornwell, Lavaughan Freeman, Tyrome McCarthy, Jerome McCarthy, Ethan Russell
Top returning players: Jacob Medina (Sr., G), Elijah Boggs (Sr., G), Jaden Ashby (Jr., G), Carson Baker (Sr., F), Kaden Spaid (Sr., G), Ben Sites (Sr., G), Connor Ballentine (Sr., G/F)
Top newcomers: Jayson Herndon (Sr., F), Austin Rogers (Sr., G)
Wygant’s outlook: “To be honest and it’s probably cliché, but the sky is the limit. With abbreviated practices and prep time for all the district schools for the most part, this group has been together now going on their third year. They took their lumps when they were sophomores. They really came together last year and now is their time to perform. I really think that the sky is the limit for this group.”
Head coach: Garland Williams, 24th season
Last year: 5-18 overall, 3-11 Class 4 Northwestern District
Key losses: None
Top returning players: Cole Armel (Sr., F), Keli Lawson (Sr., F), Zachary Symons (Jr., G), Amari Williams (Jr., G), Adrian Myers (Jr., F), Dylan Rodeffer (Jr., G), Caleb Hakel (Sr., G)
Top newcomers: Nick Luttrell (Jr., G), Andrew Bray (Jr., G), Cam Sullivan (Jr., G), Garrett Cooper (Jr., F), Cody Crittenden (Jr., F), Hunter Bailey (Jr., F)
Williams’ outlook: “We feel like we can be right up there with the top of them. Our newcomers coming up, we feel like they are going to give us a good punch because that group has been playing together the last two years and they have done well at the JV level. Then we have our mesh of guys that played last year. We took our lumps, but all of those guys are back. Prayerfully we get a chance to play and we should be able to roll. There was a lot of learning for those guys from last year.”
Head coach: Brent Emmart, 24th season
Last year: 10-14 overall, 7-7 in Bull Run District
Key losses: Colby Childs, Volkan Ergen, Jacob Weddle, Trey Trenary (injury)
Top returners: Brendan Moyer (Sr., F), Ellis Nei (Sr., G), Diante Trammel (Jr., G), Luke Lyman (Jr., F)
Top newcomers: Dain Booker (Jr., F), Matthew Sipe (So., G), Brandon Hindman (Jr., G)
Emmart’s outlook: “We have some strong returners coming back from last year, so that is going to help us out a lot. This year as far as the league goes, who knows? East Rock is supposed to be the top team in our league. They have the Nickel kid, but who knows how many games we’ll get in and who we’ll play. … Who knows how the district will shake out with it being such an odd year with COVID, a shortened season and games all crammed into January? We have a good group of returners back and we feel like we can compete with everybody in the league night-in and night-out. It’s going to be difficult playing three and four games a week, trying to keep guys’ legs fresh and trying to keep guys healthy. It’s like a soap opera we’re living in every day with what is going to happen tomorrow with basketball and the roster. You just never know each day. That’s why you have got to be flexible and take one day at a time.”