By Luke Anderson | [email protected]
Two weeks after St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes defeated Episcopal in the IAC Championship, both high school boys’ basketball teams traveled to Virginia State University for the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I state playoffs.
The hometown rivals went up against each other in the VISAA semi-finals on Feb. 28, where the Saints defeated Episcopal 74-65.
Episcopal started the game strong, leading 22-14 at the end of the first quarter. They maintained their lead throughout the second quarter, but were plagued by foul trouble, which allowed SSSAS to gain steam. The Saints took the lead in the third quarter and eventually took the win, despite a strong finish from Episcopal in the fourth quarter.
“Clearly, the result and the outcome wasn’t what we had hoped for,” Episcopal coach Jim Fitzpatrick said. “But our team played hard, we did everything that we could, and at the end of the day, we know that we lost to a very special group, a very excellent team from St. Stephen’s.”
The game ended Episcopal’s season at 18-7, with four of their losses to the Saints. The Saints advanced to the state championship on Feb. 29, where they lost to Paul VI Catholic High School 67-59.
“What an outstanding accomplishment for … two independent schools that are less than two miles apart to be able to climb that mountain and face each other in championship games and in semi-final games in the final four of the state,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think it says a lot about both schools, both institutions, about how hard the students work and how much the community supports both basketball and the athletic programs.”
Although neither school secured the championship in the 2020 VISAA state tournament, both have been on top within the past five years. SSSAS won both the IAC and VISAA championships last year, and Episcopal won both in 2016.
A team can’t win championships every year, but the players and coaching staff can work hard and feel good about their performance each year, Fitzpatrick said.
Both Fitzpatrick and SSSAS coach Mike Jones said their teams have worked tirelessly for their success this year.
“Because we were defending champions, we knew we had a target on our back,” Jones said. “But we also knew that it was going to be a tough task to try to repeat. So we tried to do everything within our power just to be prepared mentally, physically and be ready to play.”
Jones and his team repeated their strategy from last year, which is to take things one game at a time. The team also sets goals for themselves at the beginning of each season. This year, team captain Xavier Lipscomb wanted to win the Sleepy Thompson tournament, IAC and VISAA.
“It’s always great to win the [IAC] conference, especially going back to back,” Lipscomb said. “That was one of our huge goals and we actually accomplished that this year, so we were very happy with that, and it gave us a lot of momentum going into VISAA.”
“Overall, I felt like our energy was really, really good,” Jones said. “We played hard, we played together. And then sometimes, you know, you can do all those things and still come up short, and I think that’s what happened.”
Despite losing to Paul VI, SSSAS’s season is not over yet. In January, they were invited to play in the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament later this month. It will be the first time a non-Catholic team has been invited to participate in the tournament since it began in 1961.
SSSAS is scheduled to play against St. Frances Academy of Baltimore on March 12. Depending on their performance, they may face Paul VI once again. After their recent loss, they are coming back to refocus and re-energize so they can bring their best game should that rematch happen, Lipscomb said.
Alhambra will be the last tournament Lipscomb plays with his team. He graduates this year and has been recruited to play basketball for Radford University; however, he is not sad to go.
“There’s really no goodbye,” Lipscomb said. “[Our team’s] bond is unbreakable and this is truly family.” “They remember the relationships,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s got to be more than just winning and losing.”
(Read more high school sports: T.C. Williams boys’ basketball takes division title)