Williamsburg Christian Academy’s varsity boys basketball team has landed the number 5 seed in the upcoming VISAA Division IV State Championship tournament playoff bracket. The Eagles, who made the tournament annually for over a dozen years, broke a drought of three years without a playoff appearance. The team will face the number 12-seeded Blessed Sacrament-Huguenot Knights at 6 PM on Tuesday, February 27th in the Edgar Randall Memorial Gymnasium on the campus of WCA. The team is looking forward to a packed house of spirited Eagle-faithful fans leading into tip-off.
The team, led by second-year coach Kellen Furlough, entered the season with fairly modest expectations. Having lost their leading scorer from the season prior, the team was thin on experienced players, with rising juniors Jack Marlowe, Nathan Watson, and Jake Duffy forming the core of a younger team. But the team would get a big boost from the arrival of international students Tidiane “TJ” Ly, Victor Racu, and Emanuele “Manny” Banfi. But little was known about the players’ skill level, especially having not played ball in the US. Coach Furlough felt confident, however, that the team would make improvements over the 21-22 campaign. “I had only seen some highlights of Tidiane, Emanuele and Victor by the time we started to schedule games, and I knew it would take us some time to gel as a team,” explained Furlough. “With Jack, Nathan, and Jake returning, plus some younger players joining us that I knew had been playing for several years, I felt confident that we would be better this year overall. It was just a matter of how much.” That hunch bore out when he saw the team assembled
for the first week of practice. “In our first practice it was pretty clear Jack, Nathan and Jake had all taken a pretty big step in their development and confidence. Then seeing the new guys warm up, and with our younger players all having good experience on the middle school team last year, I felt like we were definitely going to be a playoff team considering the new 4-Division format.”
The team’s postseason playoff chances received a boost as the season was getting set to wind up, when VISAA announced that new 4-division format. The new division was formed as a measure of competitive fairness to break off smaller schools such as WCA from a rapidly growing Division 3 field. As a result, WCA would not be in competition with schools almost twice their size for playoff consideration. Would WCA have been in the mix nonetheless if the new division had not been formed? Coach Furlough thinks it would have been challenging, but possible. “It would be close, but we probably would not have been able to start as slowly as we did,” admitted Furlough. “To be able to beat D3 #7 Grace Christian and beating D3 #12 Brunswick tells me we would’ve had a chance. However, we probably would’ve needed to have beaten Denbigh Baptist early on and found a way to defeat Kenston Forest to really feel confident that we would’ve qualified in a 3-division format.”
Early on in the season, even a Division 4 playoff spot was in question, as the team hovered around .500 in the early games. Disappointing losses against aforementioned Denbigh Baptist seemed to put the team in peril of spending a fourth season without a playoff berth. After an early January Friday night loss to Grace Christian, it seemed the team was struggling to take that next step. A fortunate scheduling issue, however, resulted in a full week with no games, and the coaching staff used that time to hit the reset button. “Having 4 days in a row of practice is hard to come by once games start so we really tried to take advantage of it,” recounts Coach Furlough. “We went back to the basics, we got a mental break from the stress of games, focused on our fundamentals, and built up our chemistry. We won 3 of the next 4 games including wins over Division IV’s #5 and #6 ranked teams while being ranked #10 at the time. Those wins gave the guys a lot of confidence down the stretch.”
The turning point of the season per the head coach, was a big home win over Church Hill Academy. “Church Hill has been a very strong program the last few years and we were fortunate to play them at home in front of all that support. It was a hard fought win in overtime with big shots from all our leading players and gave us the confidence we could compete with quality teams.” The stretch run was key for WCA, as the team would post big wins for the Homecoming game against the Spirit Warhawks, a 100 point+ explosion versus Teach Homeschool, and a nailbiter over highly-regarded King Abdullah Academy. The team’s only loss came against old METRO conference foe Atlantic Shores Christian, ranked #8 in Division 2, with the team only falling by single digits. But the big move upwards came with a statement 20 point win over that same Grace Christian team they had lost to by the same margin in late January, in the VMAC Conference tournament semis. The Eagles would fall short of a VMAC title against the Carmel School, the VISAA D-III #3 Tournament seed, who had beaten them by 30 just prior to the early season loss to Grace Christian. WCA led at the half of that game, and was just one point down at the end of three, eventually losing 64-60.
So what really changed from the beginning to the end of the season? As the old adage goes, players making plays, and also buying into the concept of getting better every day. Per Furlough,”I’m not sure they saw it progressing early on but they kept working hard and adjusting to what we asked them to do and it eventually came together for us in some big games.”
Perhaps no player embodies the surge for WCA than junior TJ Ly. Ly is Division 4’s leading scorer with just over 20 points a game, and leads the team in most major statistical categories. But as we all know, one player does not make a team. “TJ has been terrific, no doubt about it. He has even taken it to another level in the second half of the season as well,” shared Coach Furlough. “Certainly Manny (Banfi) and Jack (Marlowe) deserve a lot of credit as well. Jack had one of his best shooting days in our win against St. Michael to help us get that win and has been a steady rebounder and shooting threat. Manny has really come on well of late on offense. He was always a great defender and great at making passes. But we asked him to trust his scoring ability more towards the end of the season and that seems to have helped us become more balanced as a team on offense.”
The addition of ballhandler Julian LaPastora mid-season was also pointed to by the head coach as having made an unsung impact on the team’s improvement in the latter half of the season. “Julian has done so many things for us that others might not notice. He has completely changed the energy level on the bench and keeps everyone engaged and ready to contribute. He comes into the game and gives us energy on the floor as well. He will grab an opportunistic rebound or steal and shoots the ball with confidence.”
Asked to use one word to describe this year’s team, Coach Furlough landed on ‘resilient’. “We started slow, we had some injuries at times, but we were able to win some games that will give these young men lifelong memories and life lessons. Their willingness to continue working hard when things weren’t going well will carry them well past basketball.” And feelings on being chosen at the fifth-seed position for the bracket? “Definitely excited. I’m excited for the players to get to experience this for the first time in each of their careers. I’m excited for it to happen so quickly. Truth be told, I made a personal goal to make the playoffs within the first three years. So to do it in year two feels great to be ahead of schedule of where I thought we could be.”
Although no team can ever overlook any opponent, statistically and with regard to like opponents, WCA holds a clear edge over the BSH Knights going into Tuesday night. BSH does not publish players stats, so there is little we know about the team, aside from the fact that they were defeated by a number of teams that WCA was able to notch wins against. Sound decision making and defensive focus will likely play a big part in a WCA win.
Should WCA emerge victorious against BSH, they would face New Covenant School Wednesday evening away in Lynchburg. Past the quarterfinals, the semi-finals and finals are held this coming weekend at Virginia State University.
Tickets for Tuesday night’s game will be sold at the gate, and are $5 for all attendees. Children 5 and under enter free. For more information on WCA Athletics, follow us on Facebook or visit athletics.williamsburgchristian.org.