Eric Bowles celebrates with fellow W.T. Woodson students after the Cavaliers beat Lake Braddock in last Friday’s Virginia 6A North final. (Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post)

As W.T. Woodson guard Eric Bowles sat on the bench in foul trouble last Friday, his eyes wandered into the stands behind the basket. There, he spotted students wiping tears from pained faces. Though the scene piqued Bowles’s curiosity, the urgency of the Virginia 6A North region semifinal against Herndon playing out before him left the Cavaliers junior unable to fully process what was happening.

Down the hallway from the Robinson gym, counselors gathered in the wrestling room, attending to students grieving over the news that a classmate had died earlier that afternoon in an apparent suicide. It marked the second death of a Woodson student in a three-day span, and the news trickled through the stands.

As fans stormed the floor after Woodson’s thrilling overtime victory, the players caught wind of the news, triggering an emotional postgame scene. Coping with the grief is the latest challenge in a season full of them for the Cavaliers, who will return to the Robinson court Saturday for a Virginia 6A state semifinal game against Landstown.

“We’ve been through a lot of challenges, but this last one has taught us to stick together and we can work through any problem,” said Bowles, who was close with one of the deceased students. “Now we’re playing for something bigger and trying to win for the Woodson community.”

Early expectations

The Cavaliers had a thrilling run to the school’s first state semifinal appearance a year ago. While Bowles stood as the lone returning starter from that team, the addition of private school transfers Matt Ayoub (Paul VI) and Trey Johnson (Middleburg Academy) led to heightened preseason expectations.

Coach Doug Craig and the Cavaliers have soldiered on through several major challenges during their run to a second straight state semifinals appearance. (Richard A. Lipski/For the Washington Post)

Coach Doug Craig, however, tempered his initial outlook.

“This group is totally new, and because we’re a younger team, the consistency and focus wasn’t always there,” Craig said. “I remember telling people, I don’t know how good we’re going to be at first, but if we’re patient and work to get all this talent on the same page, I thought we could be really good in the end.”

Progress surfaced in spurts, including Ayoub’s 32-point outburst in a season-opening loss to Herndon, Johnson’s game-winning putback in a Dec. 20 victory over West Potomac and Bowles’s consistent play, which paved his way to region player of the year honors. But it wasn’t until January, with the Cavaliers in the midst of an eight-game winning streak marked by strong defense and a balanced offense, that the team appeared to be reaching its potential.

“It took some adjustment,” Johnson said. “Over time, I’ve learned to do what the team needs me to do, which is rebound, work hard and play hard on defense, along with attacking on offense.”

Whatever chemistry the Cavaliers had built to that point was tested when a pipe burst in the school’s gym, displacing the team for two weeks. With practices relegated to an auxiliary gym too small for full-court sessions and neighboring schools only able to offer gym space in the late hours of the night, the Cavaliers stumbled to four losses in their final seven regular season games.

The players’ confidence in late-game situations also took a hit during the Conference 7 championship, when they fell to Lake Braddock on a last-second shot for the second time this season.

“We’ve been right there in all of our losses and had some tough breaks in a tough schedule,” Craig said. “I think it says a lot of about the kids’ character that they ultimately didn’t let that or the distractions from our gym situation get to them.”

Overcoming tragedy

The morning after a Feb. 25 comeback win against a red-hot Battlefield team in the region quarterfinals, a Woodson sophomore was killed when he was struck by a Virginia Railway Express commuter train. The news hovered over the team’s practice that day, and Craig said the players looked “emotionally out of sorts.”

Two days later, as the team prepared to board the bus to Robinson for the region semifinals, Craig got word of the second death, further rocking a Fairfax County community still trying to process the suicides of two Langley students in the first week of February.

Initially, Craig asked Woodson Athletic Director Dan Checkosky about possibly postponing the game. But with the region final scheduled for the next day and just hours until tip-off, the two weighed their options.

“I asked him, ‘What if our kids hear about it and don’t want to play?’ ” Craig said. “Dan said if that was the case, then we’d probably have to forfeit and he’d support me in that. Ultimately, we decided it was best if we didn’t tell them and risk upsetting them too much before the game.”

Following their overtime victory, teary-eyed players emerged from the locker room, the triumph of the moment vanquished by the tragedy of losing another peer.

Though the wounds remained fresh less than 24 hours later, the Cavaliers demonstrated the lessons learned from a season of maturation and adjustment, defeating Lake Braddock for the first time in four meetings to capture their second straight region title.

“All we kept saying was we have to win this game for those kids and the community,” Bowles said. “We’ve had to play the underdog role these playoffs, and we’ve accepted that challenge. Now we’re just two wins away from our ultimate goal.”