By Chris Teale (File photo)
For the first time since 1999, the Episcopal boys basketball team celebrated a championship in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association after a 67-63 victory over Paul VI in the final on Saturday.
Senior guard Nick Reed led the way for the Maroon in the final at Virginia State University in Petersburg with 21 points. Junior guard George Mawanda-Kalema scored 13 points, while senior forward Edwin Ebube tallied 12 and freshman point guard Xavier Johnson added 10.
“[The state championship] is extremely significant,” said Episcopal head coach Jim Fitzpatrick in an interview Monday. “I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a team before that could accomplish so much, and truthfully, do it with an incredibly positive attitude and high spirits.”
The victory caps a memorable season for Episcopal, which finished 25-4 overall including postseason games. The Maroon won the Interstate Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles, as well as an early triumph in the Sleepy Thompson invitational basketball tournament hosted locally by St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes.
The No. 1-seeded Maroon began their campaign at states with a bye in the first round and then beat defending state champion Cape Henry 60-55 at home in the quarterfinals to secure their spot in the final four at Virginia State University. That win came 11 days after Episcopal’s last game, which Fitzpatrick said meant managing players’ workloads between games and only dialing up the intensity of practice two days before the Cape Henry game.
“Oftentimes, people from the outside think coaching is really about the X’s and O’s on the floor, but there’s so much that has to be put in to managing your team, not only physically but certainly emotionally and how best to use gaps of the season,” Fitzpatrick said. “[I] thought it was a good balance of the appropriate amount of time for rest and recovery but also of intensity of work to make sure that we were ready to compete for another championship.”
In the semifinals, Episcopal came up against local rival St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes, which entered the state tournament with the No. 5 seed. The teams split their two regular season clashes during local conference play, and then met again in the IAC tournament final on February 20.
Unlike that game, which finished 56-55 in favor of the Maroon after a tense four quarters, the state semifinal had a far larger margin of victory for Episcopal, with a final score of 75-49. Mawenda-Kalema led Maroon scorers with 29 points, while Reed added 20. Junior Denmark Slay led the Saints with 18 points, while sophomore Donovann Toatley had 11.
“It was fun for me as a coach, because from the beginning of the game until the final minute, you could see our team continuing to get better right before our eyes,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think they got better in terms of how they played on the court and getting used to the situation and being comfortable.”
That victory over their local rivals meant the Maroon would face Paul VI, a regional power in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference with several Division I-caliber players. Given the Panthers’ athleticism, size and talent across the board, Fitzpatrick said it was a tough test but one that was overcome through teamwork.
“It’s five players on their team vs. five players on our team,” he said. “Fortunately for us, this is not an individual sport; it’s a team sport. The strength for our group this year has always been in the team. The fact is that we can have any one of our five starters step up and score in double digits on the offensive end if we need to, but the key was uniting defensively.”
The state tournament win was a fitting end for Episcopal’s seven seniors. Fitzpatrick said that while the team’s talent was never in question, its mental strength was one of the biggest factors in winning its various championships.
“You face some adversity, and some teams just buckle under the pressure,” he said. “This team would sometimes bend but they would never break, and that is what made it so much fun for me to be around this group and to coach them. The strength was in our team, not one individual, and that was what made this season so special.”