By Brad Fauber
The Front Royal Flames' varsity boys basketball team expected to take its lumps throughout this season, and its youth probably showed down the stretch in some close losses during the regular season. But it will have a chance this weekend to possibly avenge some of those nail-biting losses.
The Flames, a program offered to local home school athletes, are gearing up for the annual Virginia Home School Athletic Association (VHSAA) state basketball tournament scheduled for Friday and Saturday at Virginia Tech, and fifth-seeded Front Royal opens the event with a rematch against Richmond-based Spirit Athletics.
Fourth-seeded Spirit beat the Flames twice during the regular season and both times escaped with three-point victories.
"I think the guys are very confident that they can pull it out now," Flames head coach Brad Foster said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Early in the season they suffered some setbacks, but we've grown quite a bit."
The Flames -- who don't have a senior on their varsity roster -- finished out the regular season with a 10-13 record, and have lost three of their last four games. But Front Royal, despite its youth, has played several teams tough this season, and four of its losses have come by three points or less.
Foster said in many of those close losses, the Flames' youth showed down the stretch as poor shooting often derailed chances for Front Royal to come out on top.
"Defensively we're a solid team. We match up well with usually everybody," Foster said. "We struggle from the perimeter, so a lot of times in games we ended up shooting ourselves out of it."
Front Royal's lack of a consistent perimeter game has forced the Flames to rely heavily on sophomore Matt Hody and junior Mark Steigerwald inside this season. Hody is averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while Steigerwald is averaging 11.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per contest.
That duo will have to continue its solid production if the Flames hope to get a little redemption in Friday's first-round game against Spirit at Virginia Tech's War Memorial Gym.
"We'll need a big game from Matt Hody and Mark Steigerwald. They're pretty much our staple players inside," Foster said. "But the difference makers are going to be on the outside. They have to play smart."
The Flames, who advanced to the state finals two years ago according to Foster, would play the top-seeded Lynchburg Patriots in Saturday's semifinals if they win on Friday.
Front Royal will also have its middle school boys and girls teams, as well as its junior varsity boys and girls teams, competing in their respective divisions in this weekend's tournament.
Foster, who also coaches both the middle school and JV boys teams, has high hopes for the JV team, which has lost just one game all season.
"My JV team is really strong this year and I think at this point we're expected to be in the finals, if not win the whole thing," Foster said.
The Flames' JV girls, which played against varsity competition for much of the season, has also had a fairly up and down year as it has dealt with its own youth and inexperience.
"We lost a couple girls to the local private schools around here. We lost two of our players, one of them was our MVP last year," girls head coach Jason Weatherholtz said. "So going into this year, we weren't sure what we had."
The JV girls are currently 9-15, but the Flames have won six of their last nine games, according to Weatherholtz.
The team is led by freshman Emily Weatherholtz, who is scoring 11.6 points per game to go along with 3.5 assists and 3.3 steals per contest. Jason Weatherholtz said sophomore Rebecca Locke (6.3 points, 7.8 rebounds per game) has also emerged as a solid contributor over the last few weeks.
The Flames -- which are the second seed in the four-team JV girls bracket -- open the tournament against the Central Virginia Homeschool Athletic Association, which Front Royal beat in their only meeting during the regular season.
"I'd be surprised if we lost to them," Jason Weatherholtz said.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD