By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
Last year, the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes boys’ varsity basketball team won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association state tournament for the first time since 1990. This year, they’re going for a repeat.
The Saints started off the 2019-2020 season strong with a winning streak at the beginning of December. The team also dominated the annual Sleepy Thompson Tournament Dec. 5 through 7.
Later in the month, the team suffered two losses, coming up short against two of the top teams in D.C. The Saints fell to Gonzaga, 69-63, on Dec. 15 and lost to DeMatha, 72-63, on Dec. 29.
The new year brought a change of pace, the Saints redeeming themselves with solid wins against Grace Brethren Christian School on Jan. 3 and perennial powerhouse Flint Hill School on Jan. 4. The win over Flint Hill was especially meaningful since SSSAS lost to them last year, according to head coach Mike Jones, who is now coaching his third season.
With an 11-2 record, the team is now fully focused on the Interstate Athletic Conference, Jones said. At the beginning of each season, the players set goals both individually and as a team, and this year, all the boys said they wanted to win every tournament and championship they play, Jones said.
“We only had like three losses last year, and we have two now [this season],” sophomore guard Jeremiah Barnes said. “If we just keep playing good, … we could go undefeated the rest of the season.”
To reach their goals, the team is sticking to the same strategy that led them to victory last season: take it “one game at a time.”
“That’s exactly our strategy,” Jones said. “I feel like if we do that, then that’ll put us in the best situation to be successful down the stretch, if we just focus on one game at a time.”
Jones said the team has learned a lot from the games they’ve lost this season. The Saints are working hard to improve their offense — getting to the spots, covering space on the court and being ready to take shots when opportunities present themselves. Overall, Jones says he is happy with the team’s performance.
“I like the way our guards are playing,” Jones said. “I like the way our bigs are coming off the bench and playing with a lot of energy and space on the floor. But defensively, that’s what we really hang our hat on, where we can, you know, really try to impact the game and speed up the offensive team.”
Jones said that seniors Jared Cross and Jamal Barnes have been playing exceptionally well. Cross is averaging 16 to 17 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three and 50 percent from two. Barnes is shooting right at 39 percent from the three-point line.
The Saints have managed some setbacks this year. Senior Xavier Lipscomb is just starting to get back to his old rhythm as he continues to recover from shin splints sustained last season. Several players have been dealing with nagging injuries or been out sick since the season started.
Fortunately, the team has 17 players, the most SSSAS has had in recent years. Out of the 17 players, 11 are seniors and many have at least one year of experience under their belts. Barnes and Lipscomb stand out, having been on the team since they were freshmen.
In addition to practicing as often as possible, the team is focusing on injury prevention and healing. For about 20 minutes after practice, players do stretches to increase their flexibility as well as relaxation techniques.
“We’ve been really trying to focus on just icing [the guys], stretching the guys, doing yoga – just making sure that we’re taking care of our bodies as well,” Jones said.
Players hope this will give them an advantage going forward, Jones said. However, now halfway through the season, the team is sure to face tough competition on the road to the IAC.
“The IAC is challenging,” Jones said. “So you know, teams come in and play hard each and every night. […] This is just a tough league top to bottom. You got to be mentally tough to play each and every game.”
“We [have] good energy on and off the court,” senior Tony Galdamez said. “It’s good effort right now. We’ve just got to keep going.”
The Saints’ home game against Landon High School this week, which was rescheduled from Tuesday to Wednesday due to inclement weather, took place after press time. As of press time, the Saints were 11-2 and ranked fifth in the state.