Saints capture first state hoops title in 29 years

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The St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys’ basketball team ended its season with a historic win at the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament. (Courtesy photo)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys’ varsity basketball team hit a historic high on March 2, ending its impressive 27-3 season with a 67-58 win against crosstown rival Episcopal High School to win the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament. It is the first time SSSAS has won the tournament since 1990.

The Saints came out of last season’s solid 18-10 record with a thirst for improvement and roared into the 2018-2019 season with a victory in the regional Sleepy Thompson Basketball Tournament. Throughout the season, SSSAS dominated its conference and beyond, also winning New York’s Josh Palmer Fund Tournament, its conference tournament and, ultimately, the VISAA tournament.

Charles Thompson, senior captain and power forward, said he believed from the start that this year’s team could accomplish big things.

“Nobody really believed that we would have a great year like this, but I’ve been saying since I was a freshman that if we just stick together and we play together and we play the right way that we can all do something very special here,” Thompson said. “I’m just glad that I was here to see it before I left.”

Going into the VISAA championship game, SSSAS had defeated Episcopal all four times the two teams had faced off this season. However, players and Coach Mike Jones treated it like any other game.

“We didn’t go in too confident. We knew that anything could happen,” Christian DePollar, senior captain and shooting guard, said. “They actually cut it close a couple of times, so we knew that we had to come out and play with the same intensity we’d been playing with all year.”

The Saints’ championship victory was another item on a long list of goals Jones had his players set for themselves at the beginning of the season.

“I had the guys prepare their goals and kind of write it down,” Jones said. “And then each and every day at the practices, look at your goals and ask yourself, ‘Did you work as hard as you can to achieve those goals?’”

Throughout the season, the Saints steadily worked through that list with a fast and defensively aggressive style of play. According to Jones, that kind of basketball required every player to set aside ego and commit to the team.

With an average of 20 assists per game, the Saints played true team basketball, consistently “turning down a good shot for a great shot,” Jones said. Between the team’s deep roster and strong defense, few teams were able to stand up to them.

The Saints averaged 20 assists per game during the 2018-2019 season.

“We played together. We were really unselfish and defensively we just really shut teams down,” Ephraim Reed, a senior captain and point guard, said. “We pressed full court and the other teams really couldn’t handle it.”

However, the team’s chemistry off the court was just as valuable throughout the season, DePollar said. Most of the team had been playing together for years either at SSSAS or on AAU teams. The almost familial connections players had forged with each other was as big of an asset for the team as shooting skills or defensive play, DePollar said.

“That was really a key thing for us this year,” DePollar said. “Everyone was cool with each other. Everyone loved to be around each other. That’s something I would never take for granted. I love those guys.”

Thompson, Reed and DePollar and their three fellow seniors leave the team with a championship – and a substantial legacy for next year’s squad to live up to. Seniors said they are confident the next class of Saints will succeed if they step up as leaders as well.

“I think the team needs to develop that type of leadership,” DePollar said. “When you’re in between those lines you have time to make your teammates better.”

Jones said he is aware that after winning the state tournament, fans and opponents will have a very different expectation of SSSAS going forward. For Jones, following up on their championship is a reason to work even harder, and Jones’ players seem to agree: Two days after winning the championship, several players were back in the gym practicing their shots, Jones said.

According to Jones, the team’s philosophy this season – one game at a time – goes beyond just one season.

“We’re going to have a target painted on our back, but I kind of do it in baby steps,” Jones said. “I feel like if we practice hard each and every practice, we play hard every possession and game, it’ll give us the best chance to win. We don’t want to short cut anything.”

Two other Alexandria high school basketball teams also recently ended successful seasons by reaching their state tournaments. The Bishop Ireton High School girls’ varsity team lost 59-51 to St. Anne’s-Belfield School in the VISAA semifinals, and the T.C. Williams girls’ varsity team ended its season with a 61-50 loss to Woodbridge High School in the Virginia Class 6 semifinals.

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