It wasn't until early December, when Tyler Scanlon and five of his Westfield basketball teammates were attending their second funeral in less than a week, that the thought of making history went from a dream to a mission.
Several days after learning that former football teammate and All-Met kicker Conor Bouveron had passed away on Nov. 23, that same group of two-sport players was back at another funeral, this time for the mother of Westfield basketball coach Doug Ewell. As Scanlon filed down the line to offer his condolences to the family, Ewell's father stopped the senior and shared his own words of inspiration.
"He looked at me and (senior guard) Blake (Francis) and said 'I want to go back to VCU,' " Scanlon recalled Wednesday night. "That kind of gives you the extra drive in that you're doing something for somebody else and sports means a little bit more."
Suddenly, Scanlon, Cole Huling, Taevon Chapman-Greene, Hank Johnson, Rehman Johnson and Sean Eckert — a group of two-sport athletes already fueled by four consecutive losses in the football region championship and a one-point defeat in last year's Virginia 6A state basketball final at VCU — had yet another motivating force for what they ultimately accomplished Wednesday.
Three months after holding off Oscar Smith in triple overtime during the Virginia 6A state football championship, Westfield routed the same Tigers in Wednesday's basketball final, joining Hampton (1988-89) as the only schools to win both titles in Virginia's highest classification during the same school year. The basketball team is also the first from Fairfax County to win a state title in the Virginia High School League's highest class since Lee did it in 1981.
(Note: Bethel, led by some guy named Allen Iverson, won the basketball and football state titles during the 1992-93 school year but the football championship was in Class AAA, Division 5 — Virginia's second-highest classification at the time)
"Playing in back-to-back state championships for football and basketball is huge, and to win it, it's just something I could have never imagined as a kid," said Hank Johnson, a starting wide receiver and forward on the football and basketball teams. "The fact that we did it, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it. Hard work pays off and that shows."
The spoils of that hard work surfaced with about five minutes remaining in Wednesday's game. That's when the Westfield faithful began chanting "Just like football" toward the Oscar Smith fans. The cheer brought a smile to the face of Westfield football Coach Kyle Simmons, who was sitting about five rows up from center court at the Siegel Center.
Afterward, Simmons embraced the rare title two-step as a case against sports specialization. Rather than confine the school's plethora of athletes to one playing field, Simmons said that he, Ewell and the rest of the Westfield coaches encourage their players to play multiple sports in an effort to build community and maximize the high school experience.
"Coach Simmons and I, we teach two classes together and we talk about it all the time," Ewell said. "If you know one thing about Westfield, most of the teachers are in the program, in the school. We live in the community. Sometimes that's good, sometimes that's tough. We take a tough loss, man, you go to Chick-fil-A as much as I do, they look at you funny.
"That's why I think Westfield is a special place," Ewell continued. "It's a special place because of how hard we work to unify as a group. It's one school, one goal, one mission. … We fuel off each other which makes us all and all stronger."
So much so that as the football season wore on and the temperature dropped below freezing, Scanlon (who played both quarterback and receiver), Hank Johnson and quarterback Rehman Johnson often stayed an hour after many practices working on passing routes, prompted by near-misses on both the gridiron and basketball court.
"Last year after the [basketball championship], I sat right over there and I remember Coach Ewell saying 'Tyler will be back. We'll be in the gym tomorrow.' We took that mentality into football," Scanlon said. "It's all because you missed a play and somebody makes a layup to win a state championship. That fuels you for nine months from August 4, all the way through."
In that span, the Bulldogs have managed to rewrite the school's sports narrative. Once known as the "Evil Empire" among neighboring schools after winning a handful of championships in its first few years of existence, Westfield, which opened in 2000, again finds itself atop Virginia's sports hierarchy in unprecedented fashion.
"I'm really excited for Westfield because we're an all-sports school" Ewell said. "And that's the most important thing."