It's hard to believe the tranquil countryside of Middleburg could produce some distractions. But getting out of town might have been the best thing to happen this season for the Notre Dame Regional boys basketball team.
The Dragons went on the road over winter break for their first extended trip and came away with the championship at the Chapel Hill High School Tournament, played Dec. 27-29. Notre Dame beat Durham (N.C.) Academy, 68-56; Hephzibah (Ga.) Academy, 61-56; and blew out previously undefeated Charlotte Latin, 71-49, to win the title.
Victories could not be more therapeutic than these were for the Dragons, who were coming off three consecutive losses--Crispus Attacks, Newport and Riverdale Baptist--in the two weeks prior to the tournament, which dropped them to 4-5.
"This was our first overnight trip," Notre Dame Coach Larry Cullinane said. "Once you get out of your home court and on the road and have to eat together, sleep together and live right next to each other, it allows you to bond together.
"Bringing in nine new guys, it takes a while for them to bond together. This might have been the time when that finally happened. Now we'll find out how it carries over to the rest of our games."
Three Dragons made the 10-member all-tournament team: Sherrod Teasley, Shelton Hawkins and Bobby Weismiller. David Aliu, who scored 50 points in the three games, easily could have been added.
But Cullinane was especially pleased with the play of 6-foot-8 junior center Guy Saragba. Coming off a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the Central African Republic native was having trouble fitting into the community, and his inactivity was frustrating him further. But he has provided the Dragons with some much-needed size to clog the lane, alter opponents' shots and clean up some rebounds. His two free throws with 20 seconds remaining sealed the victory against Hephzibah.
"He still doesn't yet have the explosiveness off that knee he used to," Cullinane said, "but it's coming back. He has to gain confidence in that leg. But we can count on him for eight rebounds a game and taking up space underneath.
"And I know he's still a little frustrated. He likes to get up and dunk the ball, but right now he's doing a good job for us."
AREA TEAMS AT A GLANCE
BROAD RUN: The Spartans' strong start (3-1 during the early part of district play) has been tempered by defensive breakdowns the past few weeks, and they have lost five of six.
His team not blessed with size or good speed, Broad Run Coach Larry Boomer says there is "a premium on ball handling and team defense," and both have failed the Spartans at crucial moments recently. Defensive lapses result in committing fouls, which put opponents in the bonus early in the half.
"We're rebounding by committee," Boomer said. "We have to send all five guys in the lane. We don't have anyone we can count on for double-figure rebounds night in and night out.
"We have to execute consistently for four quarters and not get blown out down the stretch. A couple of tight wins under our belt would be a huge confidence booster for us."
LOUDOUN COUNTY: It's not too difficult to figure out why Loudoun County has lost nine of 10 games this season: the simple mistakes.
"We're not making layups and free throws, and that's killing us," Raiders Coach Chick Bushrod said. "We missed three layups early in the game against Potomac Falls [a 67-48 loss], and we're down 10-2 instead of 10-8. We can't begin games like that."
Four of the Raiders' first five losses were by a combined nine points. In the first round of the Loudoun Times-Mirror Holiday Tournament two weeks ago, they led Loudoun Valley going into the fourth quarter but lost, 67-53.
"We've got to find someone to step up and become a 14 to 15 point per game scorer," Bushrod said. "We have a bunch of guys who score seven or eight points a game; we need someone among those guys to step up."
The foul line has been an awkward place for the Raiders. Rarely have they gotten there, but when they have, they have blown their opportunities. In a 56-45 loss to Sherando in the holiday tournament, Loudoun Valley made only 6 of 24 free throws. For the season, the Raiders have made just over half their free throws.
"Our inside guys--[6-5] Tommy Welti and [6-2] Michael Stocks--are not getting to the line enough," Bushrod said. "Tommy's our best free-throw shooter, and he's only been to the line 11 times in eight games."
LOUDOUN VALLEY: A fourth-place finish in the Loudoun Times-Mirror Holiday Tournament humbled Loudoun Valley after it won its first six games of the season.
But more so, it further exposed the Vikings' weakness inside. All-Extra forward Brad Clegg's graduation has left the Vikings with little post presence. The outside game is solid, although inconsistent thus far, with Anthony Long and Kevin McKay capable of carrying the team for long stretches.
Over the next couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see if 6-foot-5 senior forward Steve Dellinger can fill that void. Dellinger, who started last year, missed the Vikings' first eight games after tearing an ankle tendon during football season.
"He's not a cure-all for what we need inside," Coach Scott Douglas said. "But he'll definitely help us. He's still, though, very rusty with his conditioning and fundamentals."
Douglas will need Dellinger to get rid of that rust quickly. Loudoun Valley's next three opponents are perhaps their three toughest yet--James Wood, Handley and Park View. Furthermore, the Vikings are in the middle of a stretch where they play six of seven games on the road.
"We'll find out if we're in the upper echelon [of the Northwestern District]," Douglas said. "Our goal is to get two good performances in our next three games. These next few games are what I call, 'eye-openers.' "
PARK VIEW: After winning six straight games, five by more than 20 points, Park View went outside the Northwestern District and got a scare from Chancellor, before pulling out a 71-68 victory. The Patriots made the long trip to the Fredericksburg school Thursday and were a bit haggard, especially after a long trip to Liberty two days earlier.
Park View typically has overwhelmed opponents in the opening minutes with its full-court pressure. But Chancellor had little trouble breaking it and was able to hit its jump shots consistently. The game was tied at 19 after the first quarter, and the margin--often in Park View's favor--was slim throughout the game.
But with four minutes to play, Park View was down five points, the first time they trailed in the second half since the loss to Osbourn on opening night. Then Matt Brownlee and Nick Smith hit back-to-back three-pointers to put Park View back up for good. The Patriots preserved the lead as Chancellor's tired legs fell victim to a final dose of pressure.
"I was very pleased with how we handled a tight game," Park View Coach Ken Edwards said. "We needed a game like this."
POTOMAC FALLS: After losing three straight to Loudoun Valley, Handley and Park View--arguably the top three teams in the Northwestern District--Potomac Falls has won three of four. Keying the turnaround has been senior guard Dustin Embrey, who has averaged 17.7 points the past three games. Embrey has given the Panthers a viable outside scoring option to complement leading scorer DeMario McCleary.
"He's in a zone right now, with some confidence going," Potomac Falls Coach Jeff Hawes said. "He doesn't let much bother him. He's really happy to be where he is."
Embrey scored a season-high 19 points in Tuesday's 67-48 victory over Loudoun County and made 4 of 5 three-pointers. While he is finding his stroke, Embrey has been the chief beneficiary of Potomac Falls's improved half-court offense.
"We've started moving the ball much better and getting better looks," said Hawes, whose team registered assists on 24 of 28 baskets made against Loudoun County.
The better ball movement is creating a more diverse scoring attack. In Potomac Falls's 52-47 victory over Loudoun Valley in the third-place game of the Loudoun Times-Mirror Holiday Tournament, seven Panthers scored in the third quarter, as the team erased an 11-point halftime deficit. Conversely, only three Vikings scored in the entire second half.
"We don't have to rely on any one guy to carry us," Hawes said. "There's no time where if we don't get a guy who get 15 points for us, we're in trouble."
CAPTION: David Aliu puts up a shot earlier this season for Notre Dame Regional, which won the Chapel Hill (N.C.) High School Tournament during winter break.