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Central’s Whittle has plenty of state experience as player, coach

Central head boys basketball coach Jeff Whittle tries to settle his team down during a game against Strasburg on Jan. 19. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — Central is in the state tournament for the first time since 2002, and the boys basketball team doesn’t have to look far to find a coach with experience.

Central head boys basketball coach Jeff Whittle, a 1999 Strasburg graduate, played on back-to-back Strasburg teams that went to the state tournament. He also coached First Baptist Church School in Charleston, South Carolina, to four state titles in eight years. First Baptist Church School, a private school, won four South Carolina Independent Schools Association 2A state titles.

Central’s players said that it helps to know they have a coach who’s been there before and can coach in big games.

“He’s definitely been in these situations before,” Central junior Sam Shifflett said. “He knows what he’s doing. So if it comes down to crunch time we trust him. And he definitely has the experience to lead us to the state title.”

Central (23-4) will play Goochland at Fluvanna High School in the Class 2 state quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday.

Whittle played a key role in Strasburg’s success in 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons. The Rams advanced to the state semifinals both years, before falling short of a state final.

In the 1997-98 season, Whittle’s junior season, the Rams won the regular season Shenandoah District title and clinched their first-ever state berth. They won the Region B title on a last-second jump shot by J.R. Anderson, in a game that was held on the University of Virginia’s men’s basketball court — University Hall.

In the state quarterfinals, Whittle hit a buzzer-beating 19-footer from the right wing to give Strasburg a double-overtime victory over Arcadia, 78-76.

In the state semifinals played in Norfolk, Whittle scored 38 points and 14 rebounds in Strasburg’s 82-69 loss to John Battle.

Whittle said that in his freshman season, the Rams only won three games so that made the success even sweeter. He said that he hopes the Falcons can enjoy their time in the state tournament as much as he did.

“Experience-wise the biggest thing is, you hated losing, but just the memories you have with your teammates and just the experience you go on,” Whittle said. “Spotswood (High School, where this year’s regional was held) was a nice little venue, but to play at U.Va. where we were at was nice. Then we went on to Norfolk for the semis. We took a charter bus going down there. There was just like a lot of neat things that you get to experience. It was just a nice little ride.”

The ride continued in the 1998-99 season. Central went undefeated in the regular season, and Strasburg won the Shenandoah District tournament to advance to regionals.

Whittle hit a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of the district semifinals to keep Strasburg’s season alive (an eventual 67-60 overtime win over Luray).

Strasburg and Central, who at one point during the season were ranked No. 1 and 2 in the Associated Press boys basketball poll, met in the regional final at University Hall in Charlottesville. The Rams upset the Falcons, 81-67.

It’s a story the Central boys basketball team has heard a lot about over the past week. The 1998-99 Central team rebounded from the loss to Strasburg and beat Lancaster High School in the state quarterfinals. It’s the same thing this year’s team is trying to do after suffering a 71-68 loss to Robert E. Lee last week.

Central assistant coach Ryan Rutz, a 2000 Central graduate, was on the Falcons’ 1998-99 team. Whittle said he has used that team as an example of what this year’s team needs to do.

“He was telling us the other day about how he played coach Rutz back in the day in the regional final,” Shifflett said. “And they beat Central and then Central went out and they won in the state quarterfinals. And he said that’s what we’re here to do. We can do that again.”

Both Strasburg and Central lost in the state semifinals in the 1998-99 season. Strasburg lost to Pound High School, 68-54, while Central lost to Glenvar High School, 72-70 in overtime.

Rutz said it’s been great having Whittle at Central and they talk about their high school days sometimes on the bus rides to games.

“You see a lot of Strasburg people come down (to Central games),” Rutz said. “So it’s kind of given us some more fans that you wouldn’t have before. It’s been great. He does a great job and just knowing him from high school, it’s been fun working with him.”

Whittle said he still stays in touch and receives support from many of the players from his Strasburg teams, including Andrew Dellinger. The pair played together at Presbyterian College and now live in the same neighborhood.

Whittle said he’s really happy for this year’s Central team and hopes they can make the most of the opportunity they have.

“I think these kids deserve it,” Whittle said. “So I’m really just glad that we put ourselves in this situation because they’ve worked extremely hard since day 1. It’s just exciting for the community because I know this community loves basketball, loves Central sports in general. We had a great crowd at Spotswood and hopefully, they’ll continue to follow us.”

If the Falcons can pull out a win on Friday they would play in the state semifinals on Tuesday or Wednesday against the winner of the Robert E. Lee-Greensville County game. The state final will be held on March 10 at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Central senior Bryan Davis said that knowing that they have a coach who has had success as a coach and a player gives them added confidence this week.

“He’s been there, he’s been through it,” Davis said. “He knows what it’s like as an athlete and as a coach. It definitely gives us a boost, because he has our backs and we know we got his back.”