By Brad Fauber
Warren County senior Blake Steele has grown into quite a presence in the paint for the Wildcats' boys basketball team this season.
It certainly helps that Steele stands just shy of 6-foot-6, giving him a height advantage over most opposing teams' big men. But one of the biggest reasons for Steele's emergence as a nearly unstoppable force for Warren County so far this season is the effort that he has put into weight training.
Steele, a three-sport athlete at Warren County who also excels at football and soccer, said there is a noticeable difference in his ability to play under the basket this season, which is a testament to how hard he worked in the weight room to prepare for football season.
"That's helped my post game tremendously," Steele said in a phone interview Monday night. "I can go up through contact and finish shots. When I get double teamed, I can get through the double team."
The increased strength and the added ability to finish shots down low have helped Steele put up some impressive numbers through the Wildcats' first six games this season. The senior is currently averaging 16.7 points and 12.3 rebounds per game and has 10 total blocks.
In this past Saturday's 52-22 road win over cross-town rival Skyline, Steele finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks to help Warren County secure the season sweep over the Hawks. For his performance, Steele has been named The Northern Virginia Daily's Male Athlete of the Week for the week of Dec. 29-Jan. 4.
"It was a solid game, and you have to consider the fact that Skyline was trying to take him out of the game," Wildcats coach Vernon Mathews said of Steele. "Skyline knows him, we've played them a lot, and they're double-teaming him and he's still getting his points.
"He feels where [the defenders] are ... he doesn't have to see it, and he's just quick. His first step towards the basket is just real quick."
Saturday's game marked the second time in as many games that Steele proved to be a menace in the paint against Skyline. In the teams' first meeting on Dec. 20, Steele finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, the only time this season that the senior didn't have at least 10 rebounds.
In both games, the Hawks made a determined effort to double-team Steele on the low block whenever he touched the ball, which was just fine for Steele.
"It seemed like they were trying to make us play inside-out," Steele said. "They were double-teaming me, which was fine because I would just kick it out to Casey [Stewart] or Jontae [Rollins]."
Steele also finished Saturday's game with four assists and helped carve the way for Stewart -- a Skyline transfer -- to record a game-high 16 points against his former team.
"Blake has the ball skills to play guard, small forward ... and that's where his ability to pass comes from," said Mathews, who added that Steele's ability to find open teammates is the most overlooked aspect of his game.
Steele is tied for second on the team with 13 assists, and he shows great ability to execute cross-court passes to open teammates on the wing when he is double-teamed on the low block.
Mathews said Steele's ability to play effectively down low for the Wildcats was one of the reasons -- along with the arrival of Stewart and the amount of returning experience for Warren County -- that the coach decided to scrap the fast-paced, 3-point offense that he introduced last season.
So far, the switch back to a more traditional half-court offense has worked well for Steele and Warren County (5-1), but the road ahead figures to get significantly tougher for the Wildcats as they prepare for a back-loaded schedule as a result of frequent postponements.
"[Steele] is definitely playing up to his potential. So far, so good," Mathews said. "We'll see what lies in store for not just Blake, but our whole team. We've got a pretty tough stretch coming up."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD