Wildcats seeing improvement amid lengthy losing streak

FRONT ROYAL – The losing streak for Warren County High School’s boys basketball team stretched to 11 straight with a 72-67 district loss to Manassas Park at home on Tuesday night. And yet despite the lengthy winless stretch, the Wildcats feel they are trending in the right direction after a scrappy performance against the Cougars.

“I know they’re tired of losing but they’re fighting now and they’re getting better and better,” Wildcats head coach John Kelly said following Tuesday’s loss, which dropped Warren County to 1-13 overall and 0-8 in the Northwestern District.

“We went from having to work on needing eight minutes in the game of improvement to now it’s about 2 1/2 minutes, maybe two or three turnovers. That was the difference right there. Every time we dropped down by 5 points, 6 points, we jumped right back in the ballgame by playing good ball, not street ball. And they maintained their composure at the end too, which is hard to do against a good team like that.”

Tuesday’s game highlighted the strides Warren County has taken, particularly from a mental standpoint, since the beginning of the season. A week ago, Manassas Park suffered a 9-point loss to a Culpeper County squad that beat Warren County by 47 points earlier this season, and yet the Wildcats took the Cougars (5-11, 3-3) to the brink in their first meeting on Tuesday night.

Warren County, playing without leading scorer Hunter Wines (ankle sprain), couldn’t hold an early lead but showed poise in a wild 56-point fourth period, refusing to go down even when trailing by 10 points with 1:30 left in the game.

Junior guard Robert Cameron and senior forward R.J. Keeney, who each finished with a double-double and paced the Wildcats’ offensive attack with 20 points apiece, pulled Warren County back into the game by combining for 9 points in a minute span to cut Manassas Park’s lead to 66-64.

Cameron started the 9-1 run with a putback, Keeney hit a pair of free throws before banking in a 3-pointer from the top of the arc with a minute to play, and Cameron added another stickback off a missed 3 with 0:35 left to cut the deficit to 2 points.

Cameron later rattled in a deep trey from the wing to pull Warren County within 70-67 with five seconds to play after the Cougars had stretched the lead back to six. The outcome wasn’t decided until Manassas Park junior Myles Scott – who scored 17 of his game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter and was 9 of 10 from the free throw line in the final frame – sank two free throws to put the Cougars up 72-67 with three seconds left.

“In the beginning of the year if we were down 10 we would just quit,” said Cameron, adding that effort has been the Wildcats’ greatest area of improvement since the start of the season. “But now the coaches have put it in us, if we’re down 10 just keep fighting and fighting and fighting. And that’s what we do, we fight and fight and fight and see what happens.”

As encouraging as Tuesday’s result was despite the loss, the game showed that the Wildcats still have more steps to take in order to find victories.

Warren County opened the game hitting its first six shots – Cameron and Keeney combined to score the team’s first 16 points – to build a 13-4 lead over the first 2:45 of the game but cooled off considerably, hitting just 6 of its next 24 shots for the remainder of the first half.

Kelly said the Wildcats “panicked” in the second period and tried to match Manassas Park bucket for bucket when the Cougars went on a run to turn a 26-17 deficit into a 2-point lead. Warren County also went into a scoring lull in the third period after taking a 37-33 lead and trailed 44-39 heading into the fourth quarter.

“I think we had about two or three really just unforced turnovers from like a bad pass or whatever it was, we didn’t play good man-to-man defense, let them drive and let them get back in the ballgame mentally, as well,” Kelly said. “For us to win games like that, I mean, we have to be mentally strong as well as physically strong.”

Warren County has some work to do in order to reach the playoffs, as the top eight teams in the 12-team Region 3B qualify for the regional tournament. The Wildcats have seven regular season games remaining, including six against fellow Class 3 Northwestern District foes, and continue a stretch of five straight home games with Friday night’s contest against a Skyline squad mired in its own 10-game losing streak.

“Our season really starts now,” said Kelly, who is in his first season as Warren County’s head boys basketball coach. “We’ve had to learn and learn and learn, a brand-new system coming in, brand-new players coming in and so on. Our season really starts now. How they go from here on out really determines whether our season is successful or not.”