By Jeff Nations
The season will be at least one game shorter than expected for Massanutten Academy's postgraduate boys basketball team.
The Colonels, who've participated in the season-ending National Prep Championship the past two seasons at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., didn't get an invitation to this year's tournament to determine a prep school national champion.
That's bad enough, but two of Massanutten's biggest rivals -- Fishburne Military School and Hargrave Military Academy -- did get invites to participate in next week's single-elimination tournament.
Massanutten (23-8) went 2-2 against those two programs, falling twice in close games to Fishburne and beating the Caissons handily in the third meeting, and knocking off Hargrave on its home floor in their lone meeting this season.
"We thought we were in," Abrams said. "You don't play four games against Hargrave and Fishburne, lose two games by a combined seven points to Fishburne and then beat them by 17, and beat Hargrave at their place -- which I'm told has only happened four times in the history of their program, it just doesn't happen -- and not get in."
Adam Finkelstein, who writes for ESPN and is the founder of New England Basketball Services, serves as director of the tournament he started in 2007 and is the sole decision maker on who gets invited to play. Finkelstein said it's "an unenviable position" every year, but more so this time because there were several bubble teams that nearly made the cut.
Massanutten, Finkelstein said, was probably the next team in -- basically, the ninth-best team in the country.
"Yeah, I think so," Finkelstein said of Massanutten being right on the border of making the field. "I think in general there are kind of two major clusters of prep schools. One is obviously the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council and the second is the four Virginia-based military academies. I think the NEPSAC is just a little bit deeper, quite honestly."
That thinking reflected in the final selections announced Tuesday, as NEPSAC members Brewster Academy (N.H.), South Kent School (Conn.), Northfield Mount Herman School (Mass.) and St. Thomas More School (Conn.) make up half the field. IMG Academy (Fla.) and Putnam Science Academy (Conn.) round out the eight-team bracket.
"[Finkelstein] said our strength of schedule wasn't strong enough," Abrams said. "Apparently he had 11 teams that he was considering for the eight spots. He had four or five that were sure ones, and we were one of the five or six others."
Finkelstein confirmed that, citing Massanutten's 2-3 record against the top 11 (including a 71-62 loss to New Hampton Prep in November's National Prep Showcase in New Haven) and overall lack of strong competition compared to the other schools which made the final cut.
Finkelstein said South Kent, the final team to get in, prevailed despite a worse record because of its strength of schedule.
"You look at Massanutten's losses versus South Kent's losses -- South Kent is 16-8, but all of the losses came against teams in the top 11."
The Colonels, despite featuring Division I signees D.J. Foreman (Rutgers), Isaac Fleming (Hawaii) and Ryan Singer (Penn), couldn't match the firepower of last season's team which boasted five Division 1-bound starters and several more future college players coming off the bench. Singer's season-ending knee injury also hurt Massanutten midway through the year.
"We won a few more games last year and had more talent, but I think we surprised some people," Abrams said. "We had Foreman and Fleming and Singer, but the rest of our guys are borderline D1, D2 even borderline D3 level. When people looked at the guys on our roster, the didn't anticipate us doing some of the things we did."
So instead of planning a trip to the Northeast for the March 4-5 National Prep Championship, the Colonels will wrap up their season tonight and Saturday in the First Piedmont Invitational at Hargrave. The Colonels get to face Hargrave in tonight's 8 p.m. contest, and with a win could potentially face Fishburne in Saturday's championship. The Caissons take on Fork Union in tonight's other semifinal game.
For the Colonels, it's one last chance to prove Finkelstein wrong and finish on a positive note.
"The guys are so deflated, it's hard to tell," Abrams said. "That's the approach we're trying to take as coaches. They really wanted to get it to that point (the Elite Eight), and there was a lot of emphasis to accomplish that and go up there and make some noise."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>