By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Blake Steele's passion has always been basketball, and high school football was there simply to keep him in shape for the winter season.
That is, until Steele decided before the start of his senior year at Warren County High School that he might as well go out and have some fun on the gridiron. Steele, whose varsity football experience was largely limited to kicking duties during his first two seasons, decided to play defensive end and wide receiver for the Wildcats in 2013.
But in order for Steele to succeed at his new positions, he had to put in the work in the weight room. Steele began taking his football workouts more seriously so that he wouldn't "look like a scrub," but he always kept basketball in the back of his mind.
"During football season, it was football, but when I was lifting I was like, 'OK, this is going to help for basketball, too,'" Steele recalled recently. "... I always had basketball in there, which helped me push through some of the workouts and stuff like that."
As soon as Steele hit the basketball court following the end of Warren County's football season, he noticed the difference.
"From the first open gym to the first practices, I felt the change," Steele said. "It was a lot easier to get up there and dunk. It was a lot easier to post people up or get rebounds and even just go through contact and finish layups. It was cool."
Steele says he has always been tall for his age, but he was finally able to utilize his size to its full potential on the basketball court for the Wildcats this season. Steele -- who now stands just short of 6 feet, 6 inches and weighed about 208 pounds for most of the basketball season -- grew nearly three inches and added over 20 pounds to his frame between his junior and senior basketball seasons. The benefits were unmistakable.
Steele, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013-14 Boys Basketball Player of the Year, averaged 15.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per game this season and was one of just two area players to average a double-double.
"I was jumping easier. To get up high like I wanted to, I didn't really have to use up all my energy," Steele said. "Last year I was still pretty big-bodied but ... I wasn't really ever able to finish through a tough contested shot. This year it was different. I was able to take the ball in the paint and be successful with it. ... I felt more comfortable taking it to the basket."
Steele's emergence as a big-time threat in the paint for Warren County -- as well as the arrival of tall, lanky transfers Casey Stewart and Ethan Greiner -- prompted Wildcats head coach Vernon Mathews to abandon the run-and-shoot offense he had installed during the 2012-13 season in favor of a more traditional half-court scheme.
Behind Steele's versatility and plenty of perimeter firepower, the Wildcats rolled to an 18-5 record, a vast improvement over their 7-16 mark a season ago.
Much of Warren County's offense ran through Steele, who also showed a strong sense of court vision and awareness. Steele excelled at finding the open teammate on kick-outs from the low block, which allowed the Wildcats to use perimeter jump shots to counteract opposing defenses that chose to double-team Steele.
"He just has such good vision and such a good ability to pass the ball out and hit those shooters," Mathews said. "And it's not just hitting shooters, but being able to hit them where they're catching the ball ready to shoot it. He's hitting them in the right spots."
"It's not about personal scores," Steele said. "I couldn't care less if I scored over five points, 10 points. I couldn't care less if I score. The way I look at it is if they're going to double me and I pass, and somebody makes a shot off my pass, that's points for me."
Steele's impact wasn't just felt on the offensive end, either. He also played a key role defensively for the Wildcats, who allowed just 40 points per game this season.
"The thing about Blake is everybody might look at the offense, but ... he was at almost four blocks a game, too," Mathews said. "So if he's blocking four shots a game, he's probably changing six to seven other shots a game."
Steele's performance this season drew the interest of several small colleges, including Bridgewater College (Division III) and Division II Tusculum College (Tenn.), but Steele is currently leaning towards Division III Eastern Mennonite University, which scouted him heavily this past season.
EMU head coach Kirby Dean personally attended at least one of Warren County's games this season, and Steele said the school's proximity to James Madison University -- where his brother, Gage, is currently playing football -- is also a big selling point. But Steele is keeping an open mind during the current Amateur Athletic Union basketball season, during which he is playing for Madison-based Strong Quality Basketball Association.
"I'll be able to go to school [at EMU], get an education and stuff like that, but I'll also be close to Gage and it will be real convenient for my parents and stuff like that," Steele said. "But I'm also leaving my options open because of this AAU, because we're going to tournaments in Indianapolis and New York and Denver and Ohio ... a lot of these are NCAA certified, so there's going to be a lot of scouts."
Mathews said most of Steele's skill set -- ball-handling, court awareness, ability to run the court -- could translate well to the next level, although he said Steele needs to improve his mid-range jumper. Mathews said scouts have also stressed the importance of getting Steele to continue to lift weights and build muscle.
But Mathews said the most important growth that Steele experienced this season came outside the weight room.
"He's just grown a lot more mature," Mathews said. "He stepped up and took a lot more of a leadership role. That's probably what I'm most proud about. He's just grown as a whole person. He's not arrived there yet, because none of us have. He's made a lot of improvements and a lot of strides, not just in basketball, but as a student-athlete, just growing as a young man. I'm probably more proud about that than anything else."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD