By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Not every team has its first basket of its first game of the new season celebrated by its fans throwing toilet rolls onto the court and storming on after them, but that is the reality for the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys basketball team, which kicked off the 2015-16 campaign by hosting its annual Sleepy Thompson tournament.
Now in its 60th year, the tournament is named for Albert “Sleepy” Thompson, who was the school’s football and basketball head coach and its athletic director. This year’s edition brought together eight teams from across Virginia, including the hosting Saints and local rivals Bishop Ireton and Episcopal, with each team playing three games in three days in a bracket format before an overall winner was crowned.
SSSAS began against Woodberry Forest in its home opener on December 3, and the traditional throwing of toilet paper rolls followed junior guard Denmark Slay scoring the team’s first points.
“It’s something our guys talk about before the game, leading up to it, wanting to score that first bucket,” Slay said after the game. “To be able to do it, it’s a great feeling, but I wouldn’t have been able to do it without Andrew Trainer making a pass to me, and us making that stop first on defense. It was crazy, it was an unbelievable feeling.”
After such a raucous start, things went south for the home side in the first half as the Saints were down 28-19 at halftime, to the disappointment of a large contingent of fans that included alumni and current students. However, the hosts came roaring back to take a 55-48 victory, to the delight of a home crowd that created a cacophony of noise and stormed the court at the final buzzer.
And while the home side failed to win its own tournament, falling 69-66 to Atlantic Shores Christian School the following day but beating St. Anne’s-Belfield 57-52 to finish third overall in a tournament won by Episcopal, the Saints relished the opportunity to have such intense competition so early in the season.
“It’s a tremendous start to our season,” said head coach Ronald Ginyard. “Every team in this tournament is good, every team in this tournament is well coached and so we play three really good games back to back to back and we learn a lot about our team. It gives us an opportunity to see what our weaknesses are, see what our strengths are and then we get to get back to work and get better at all those things.”
“It’s very important for us,” said Trainer. “Sleepy Thompson is a really big deal around here, and so you want to win every game you can, especially this because it’s a big tournament for our school. I’d say this is a very important three-game stretch for us. It can help get us in the right direction for the season.”
SSSAS comes into the new season having won the Interscholastic Athletic Conference regular-season title last year, in addition to berths in the IAC tournament semifinals and the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association quarterfinals and a record of 17-10 overall. The news that senior captain and starting guard Michael Janowski will miss the entire season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament put a dampener on things initially, but the Saints are hopeful they can fill the void.
“I’ve known Michael for a long time, so it’s been really hard with him not being on the court,” said senior captain and guard Chauncey Pittman. “But I know that if I can do what he used to do and just continue to do what I do, we’ll pick it up for the team and it’ll all work.”
“We can’t replicate it in one guy, so we’ve replicated it in multiple guys and our guys are all going to have to find a way to do those things at a higher level,” said Ginyard. “If each of them can do it a little bit better than they’ve done before, collectively we can make up for the things that we miss from him.”
With a schedule packed with top teams from around the region and a trip to the Cox Mill Holiday Tournament at Cox Mill High School in Concord, N.C., the Saints have plenty of tough tests ahead but are confident of doing even better than last season.
“We have to get better and be able to execute at a higher level and defend at a higher level,” Ginyard said. “Really, it’s a matter of consistency. We showed in this game [against Woodberry Forest] how good we can be for a short period of time. If we’re going to do more than what we did last year, we’re going to have to be able to expand that and play at that high level for an entire game and then be able to do it night after night after night.”