By J Banzet ’20
We all knew they could be special. The combination of returning sophomores, new boy fourth formers, and a fantastic group of freshmen was bound to erase the memory of last year’s tumultuous 3-14 season, but the question was just “how special could they be?” The short answer was “very,” but the 2019-2020 JV Basketball team was more than special. It was dominant, and the Tigers flipped last year’s script and made this year’s team the best in school history. Coach Gerry Wixted’s team lost one single game, its first one at home versus Benedictine, and never looked back, winning each remaining game by an average of over 20 points.
That one defeat, a three-point loss to the team that won last year’s matchup by 54 points, set the Tigers on an unprecedented course. The next three games saw three straight wins: at Madison County and at home against St. John Paul the Great and Wakefield. Then came the trip north to Alexandria on Saturday, December 14th. Playing at Episcopal marked the Tigers’ first real challenge since the Benedictine game, and what an afternoon it was in Centennial Gym. Woodberry blew out the Maroon 53-29 in front of a sleepy EHS student section, cementing the fact that this team could play with anyone. In just four games, the Tigers had rebounded from their one blunder and found themselves right where everyone expected them to be, and even further along than sophomore captain Samuel Crosby expected before the season.
“My expectations coming into this year were pretty high,” Crosby said. “I knew we had lots of talent coming from both the third and fourth forms. Because the talent level was already pretty high, I expected us to go at least .500 on the season, which would be significantly better than last year’s JV team that I was a part of.”
A quick Tuesday turnaround meant the Tigers hit the road again, this time to Harrisonburg to face a talented Eastern Mennonite squad. Woodberry maintained a lead throughout the entire game and won 61-40, heading into Christmas break with a record of 5-1.
Their first game of 2020 came against a rival as St. Chris paid a visit to the Dick Gym, and it’s safe to say the visitors didn’t know what was coming. The Tigers jumped on the Saints from the very beginning and didn’t let up, gradually stretching their lead in the second half en route to a 54-34 victory. That game meant that the JV team had beaten EHS and St. Chris by a combined 44 points, which by itself is greater than the total margin of victories from last year’s squad. A dominant 51-17 victory in Charlottesville against St. Anne’s-Belfield, including a defensive shutout in the fourth quarter, set up the game everyone on campus wanted to see: a rematch at Benedictine.
“The team had grown by leaps and bounds in a short period of time,” said Head Coach Gerry Wixted. “Our zone offense was starting to really click at that point in the season so we knew that we would be in great shape against their 2-3 zone. We also knew that when we were at our best we were unbeatable. All we had to do was do us.”
Coach Wixted’s crew travelled to Richmond with a purpose, and from the moment Edward Woltz ’23 made his first pre-game dunk, it was game on. Woltz and Reid Seck ’22 went to work down low, scoring eight of the Tigers’ first ten points and leading Woodberry to a quick 14-2 lead. The Cadets scored one more bucket the entire quarter, and when the score favored the Tigers 14-4, Woltz found himself with a wide-open path to the basket and threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk that not only gave his team a 12-point lead, but also set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, and quite frankly, for the rest of the season.
“That dunk was special. I didn’t even go up with the thought of dunking it just kind of happened,” Woltz said. “The dunk set a tone of alertness and energy. From that point on, our team played with a spark that was shared throughout the five on the floor. This tone continued for that game especially and carried as an undertone for the rest of the season. Overall, dunking contributed greatly to the energy of not only of those on the floor but those off it as well.”
Woodberry led the overmatched Cadets 21-5 at the end of the first quarter and ran away from Benedictine in the second half, winning 55-39. Revenge had been served, not only for this team, but primarily for last year’s group, as before the game Coach Wixted said, “We are going to avenge our only loss of the season and the 54-point beatdown last year’s JV team endured. I guarantee it.” The Tigers cemented themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the state of Virginia, but the very next game ended up being their closest victory of the season.
“The game at hand is the most important one of the season. However, that game did mean more to our group after last year’s debacle,” said Wixted. “That being said, our wins over St. Chris, Trinity, and Collegiate were right there with the Benedictine game in terms of how much it meant to our group. The win against Benedictine put the boogeyman in the back mirror, and we were able to focus on bigger and brighter things like sweeping St. Chris, Collegiate, and Trinity. And we did.”
Three days after the redemption victory at Benedictine, Woodberry again travelled to Richmond to face another familiar opponent: the Trinity Episcopal Titans. After falling behind by 12 points in the first half, the JV Tigers would need to play its best ball in the second half in order to mount a comeback, and according to Crosby, they did just that.
“Our team played its best basketball when we played Trinity Episcopal,” said the Raleigh native. “We started out very slow but went on a run in the second quarter and didn’t slow down. We stayed ahead for the rest of the game, but Trinity kept rallying. It came down to within 5 points near the end of the game, but we stayed on top to catch a huge road win.”
The 63-58 win was the last time the Tigers would face major adversity for 22 days, and in the process, road victories at Fork Union and Collegiate and a home win against STAB all came by double-digits. Woodberry’s final game of January, which happened to occur at the very beginning of Long-Winter weekend, meant the Tigers would travel to a hostile environment in Richmond against St. Chris.
A “trap game” scenario turned out to be the Tigers’ most impressive performance of the season. Not only did Coach Wixted’s team complete the season sweep, but they also hung a season-high 76 points on the board and won by 24.
“My favorite moment of the season was definitely pounding St. Chris on the road,” Samuel Crosby said. “We won by 24 and scored 76 points on them. What made that win so much better was the crowd we had at the game. There were about 20 Woodberry boys at the game cheering as we beat St. Chris.”
By then, everyone around the state knew how good our JV basketball team was, but for a group to score 76 points in just 32 minutes of play is remarkable. That’s over a bucket a minute, and the equivalent of a college team scoring 95 points in a game. Incredible. A rescheduled home 52-18 win against Manassas Park High School set up an exciting Saturday home game against an unfamiliar opponent, Norfolk Academy.
“My favorite moment was when Leach (Manning Leachman ’23) went off for 12 points against Manassas Park,” said Robbie Handelsman ’23. “At that time, our whole team was enjoying the moment and there was no worry about our individual success. It also was good to switch the roles and get hype like Manning did for us every game.”
Norfolk Academy is not in the Prep League for basketball, but common opponents and close games against teams such as Trinity Episcopal and Collegiate gave the Tigers some knowledge about the Bulldogs, and for the first half, everything played out the way it was supposed to. Woodberry led 31-17 at the intermission, but a stagnant display of offense let Norfolk cut the deficit to five in the third quarter. How would the Tigers respond to adversity in a home game for the first time in over two months? The answer was “masterfully,” as late-game free throws and patient ball-handling from Wallace Hardison ’23 and Handelsman gave Woodberry the hard-earned home win.
The final two games of the season, both in the Dick Gym, gave the Tigers opportunities to complete season sweeps against Collegiate and Fork Union. They did just that. Collegiate found themselves down 12-0 just four minutes into the game, and another dominant performance down low from Seck gave Woodberry an easy eighteen-point win, 54-36. Then three days later on Friday, the Woodberry community actually felt sadness because the game that day against FUMA would be the last time we would ever get to see this dominant group play together. The JV Tigers didn’t disappoint and won by 38 points, finishing the year 16-1 and ranking as one of the best junior varsity teams in school history.
“Our team’s personality and attitude were always positive,” said Crosby. “Even during a long practice, we would find a way to have fun while working in preparation for our next game. After an away win we would have fun on the buses and get ready for the post win Chipotle. Overall our team stayed constantly high throughout the entire season and it gradually went up every day at practices and games.”
Saying this team dismantled every team it played would be accurate, but numbers tell the true story of just how dominant the 2019-2020 JV basketball team was. Scoring 63.5 points per game, allowing only 40.4 points per game, and winning by an average of 23.1 points truly shows how well this team played together. Not only did they lose just one time, but the Tigers never scored fewer than 41 points nor surrendered more than 58. Saying one team dominated another is a strong statement, but that could be said of this team for 14 of their 17 games.
“I knew we would be really good from the first day of tryouts,” said Handelsman. “Everyone there could play so I knew that our team wouldn’t have any weak spot. I still feel that we never reached near our potential.”
Not only did this team exact revenge for last year’s, but they also gave this campus something to be proud of. We students bragged to friends at home about how our JV team could compete with some varsity teams, and regardless of whether or not our group would ever beat a varsity team, one thing is for sure: the 2019-2020 Woodberry Forest JV Basketball team was one of the best in school history.