By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- Ron Combs was determined that his team needed to experience a few hard knocks this season.
With that in mind, the longtime Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy boys basketball coach cast a wide net to find some public-school competition for the Patriots. They took their lumps, all right, against the likes of Dominion, Woodbridge and Jefferson (W.Va.), but they also learned how to play a new style of basketball suited to the talent available.
"Really we're a lot better now," SVCA senior guard Evan Hotek said. "Last year we found out that if you play cupcakes all season, you're going to start playing at the cupcake level. You're going to play down to teams that you should be smashing by 30 or 40."
The Patriots went from being smashed early in the season to doing the smashing on Tuesday against Ridgeview Christian in the Virginia Association of Christian Athletics (VACA) North Region quarterfinals. The Patriots unleashed an up-tempo attack that simply overwhelmed the Crusaders in the opening quarter en route to an easy 80-53 victory.
Hotek, SVCA's leading scorer last year and again this season, looks to have settled into his new role as a shooting guard capable of playing all over the court. He finished with a game-high 27 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Hotek was hardly a one-man show, though. SVCA's trio of freshman guards Tyler Fincham (18 points), Aaron Sutton (eight points) and Shyheim Gilkerson (six points) contributed on both ends of the floor as complementary scoring threats and tough defenders. The Patriots forced 15 first-half turnovers as they built a 42-24 halftime lead.
"We put a lot of defensive pressure on them, and I thought that was the key to the game," Combs said. "We've been working hard on that."
As for the new-look offense, the Patriots evolved into an up-tempo attack based on the strengths of their freshmen guards. Both Sutton and Gilkerson came up through AAU programs that stressed a faster pace than SVCA (13-12) were accustomed to playing.
"In AAU its push, push, push, so we've kind of incorporated that into our half-court set," Hotek said. "They want to run, and they're very good at it."
Combs said the turning point was that game against Jefferson on Jan. 11, a 66-37 loss that exposed just how much his team was struggling with a slow-down pace.
"It took us a little bit of time to adjust the offense to what the kids could do, and we had to learn that the hard way from Dominion and Jefferson and Woodbridge," Combs said. "We were trying to run set stuff all the time, and we weren't really good at running set stuff. So then we changed the whole philosophy of what we were doing and put more emphasis on pushing the ball and attacking the rim, what these guys do real well."
The Patriots also got big contributions from their big men against the Crusaders. Center Devin McDonagh pulled down 12 rebounds, and Pat McGrath came off the bench to pour in 14 points against Ridgeview.
"We have a lot of shooters and our big men are good, too," Fincham said. "It helps."
The Crusaders never made much of a dent in an early 9-0 deficit to open the game, as SVCA outscored its first-round opponent in all four quarters.
Ridgeview did get a strong effort from forward Will Campbell, who tallied 21 points and 13 rebounds. David Turner added 11 points for the Crusaders, who hit eight 3-pointers in the game.
The Patriots advance to Friday's semifinals against United Christian, which earned a first-round bye. Like Ridgeview, it will be another opponent SVCA has not played this season. That game is set for an 8:45 p.m. tip-off in Stephens City.
"Coach didn't want to play anyone from the Central or Southern districts, just for the fact that when we get to the postseason we didn't want them to know anything we have," Hotek said. "Honestly the first half of the season, the stats don't really tell the story of our team just because our freshman guards weren't really in the offense."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>