By Jennifer A. Sheffield
To their parents, coaches, fellow students, and teachers at Western Albemarle High School (WAHS) the chemistry between this year’s boys basketball team’s eight seniors compares to that of a family. That pride in one another’s work, plus respect for the depth of their bench, showed as the team capped off a nearly undefeated season with a 55-52 victory over final Jefferson District opponent and longtime rival Albemarle High School February 14.
They wasted no time following up that win with a rapid-fire series of regional tournament wins, finishing off Jefferson Forest (68-48) and putting G.W. Danville (48-40) in its place. Their biggest defensive fight yet, 63-56, against an aggressive E.C. Glass team on February 25 secured the Virginia High School League (VHSL) Region D tournament championship on free throws and clinched a state championship spot.
“These guys have played sports together, since they were in first grade,” said senior Luca Tesoriere’s father, Paul. “The whole experience has been really special and they’ve had a lot of fun. Their junior varsity team was undefeated and they have carried it through. They want to go as far as they can.”
Spoiling their unbeaten run through regular season play was the team’s only loss at a Christmas tournament, 61-54, against northern Virginia’s Riverside High School when the team had players out due to Covid protocols. “It was a really close game so I’m not upset with that one,” said Head Coach Darren Maynard. Western then built a 15-game winning streak to finish 23-1 overall and 14-0 in the league.
The season marked the sixth time in seven years that the boys basketball program at WAHS headed to the regional tournament.
“We had a rough last year. The guys missed a lot of time and we have had to deal with that,” Maynard said. “I’m really proud of them for getting through it and being able to be successful.”
“It is a good blend,” added assistant coach Sam Spencer. “We’ve got kids that can really play, and kids who really love the sport.”
In addition to its senior stack, WAHS’s roster includes four juniors and two sophomores. Sophomore Wes Gobble, who dropped in 20 points in a 68-26 win over Goochland High School January 13, had to step up shortly after to take the spot of injured leading scorer Isaac Sumpter, who was out for six weeks in an ankle boot. Sumpter returned to the court briefly February 10 for WAHS senior night, a 71-34 win over Monticello High School, and Gobble kept up his pace with 19 points, on par with senior center Josh Sime’s buckets that night.
“When I came back, I just wanted to fit back into that mold, because they were playing differently,” said Sumpter, who scored a game-high 18 points, including 12 in the second half, and a total of five three-pointers, in the regional championship comeback win. “It seems to be working. We’re rolling, so hopefully we can get three more, in state championships.”
Undefeated, though, does not mean winning has been easy. “If you doubt that you play like you practice, now you have evidence,” Maynard reminded his team at a practice following the first time they met Orange High School (55-48) February 8 in a contest that included 24 turnovers. Before region play, he said, “We are good enough to go a long way, but we’ll have to be ready, every time.”
Focus has been a big word for this team this year, said Sime, who was named the 2022 All-Jefferson District boys’ Player of the Year. He had 13 points and 12 boards in the win that clinched WAHS’s state berth.
Focus included when on defense. After playing Monticello in the semi-final Sime said, “We came out well with our defense. They tried to hold the ball, but we’ve got a lot of defensive weapons that forced them to fall off the ball fast, and so we got some good steals.”
One of the weapons was senior James Meenan (who also had a hot third quarter, going 10-for-10 from the foul line). “We hang our hat on our man-to-man defense,” said Maynard.
Maynard juggled playing time on senior night, making sure everyone got floor time with a set of realistic expectations. “It is always emotional for the guys. The seniors want to play really well, and our underclassmen want to send them out with a victory, so it’s an everybody pull together kind of game.”
Against Albemarle, the Warriors forced a late backcourt violation to hold onto the win. A drive by Sime after a pass from Andrew Barrese finished it out.
“We played tough and together,” said senior Lucas Farmer. “Games with them come down to who the tougher team is, so to come out on top was pretty exciting. Clinching the tournament spot was good for the team, but we have farther places to go.”
In the final game against E.C. Glass, a physical game with inside scuffles and played at lightening pace, Western was down three points at the half. The scoreboard had shown ties multiple times. Glass coach DJ Best said, “I expected that it was going to be who was able to withstand the punch and punch back.”
Playing against Seminole District Player of the Year guard Dre Harris, Western’s Alex Keeton poured in 12 points, including a 10-for-11 showing at the free-throw line, and took a game-ending charge that ignited the crowd. Farmer said, “We all work well as one big family, and if we rely on each other, it all works out.”
Assistant coach Ryan Hughes, who played for Maynard, said he was relieved that the Jefferson District tournament was cancelled. “From a game plan standpoint, we prep our kids for an opponent as good or better than anybody in the state of Virginia. There are more talented teams out there, but from a preparation standpoint there is no comparison.”
“We write down our goals as a team at the start of a season,” Sumpter said. “We want a state championship really badly, because we feel like we need it for coach. He works hard for us, and he deserves it.”
WAHS’s Athletic Director Steve Heon summed up, saying, “The lead guys are doing their thing, but when there’s a complementary player giving them a lift, that’s what you need this time of year. Wins are great, but the relationships that are being built will last a lifetime.”
As for college plans for the seniors, Barrese will be attending Patrick Henry College to play baseball, Sumpter will play baseball for Bridgewater College, and Farmer will join the crew team at the University of Wisconsin.
“If you make it all the way through all four years playing in this program, then you’ve done a lot of work and you’re a special person in my heart,” Maynard said,
Their first March games are on their home court. “To be regional champions is sweet,” said Meenan, “but starting here is good because we just do not like riding the bus.”
WAHS hosts Loudoun Valley March 4 at 7 p.m. in the VHSL state quarterfinals.