Falcons ready to face Bulldogs

Central's Sam Shifflett sinks a 3- point shot as Strasburg's Grant Scott looks on during their game on Feb. 9 in Woodstock. The Falcons play Goochland at Fluvanna High School in the Class 2 state quarterfinals tonight. Rich Cooley/Daily file

WOODSTOCK — Central has had a week to prepare after a tough loss, and the team is ready to take its next step in a quest for a state championship.

The Falcons play Goochland at Fluvanna High School in the Class 2 state quarterfinals at 7 tonight.

The Falcons (23-4) suffered a 71-68 loss to Robert E. Lee in the Region 2B final last week, after having a 13-point lead with less than seven minutes left in the contest.

Central coach Jeff Whittle said it’s important for his team to refocus and be ready for a solid Goochland squad.

“I think the kids know playing with Lee, who’s the defending state champions, we can play with anybody,” Whittle said. “But we can’t come in expecting to walk over anybody. We got to come in ready to play and match everyone’s intensity. And I think this is Goochland’s first time winning a regional title. Obviously, they’ve got some talent there. So we just got to prepare for them and see how it plays out (tonight).”

Whittle said Goochland (22-4) is led by 5-foot-11 shooting guard Deion Harwood. The Bulldogs also get key contributions from 6-foot-3 senior forward Keiston Carter and 6-foot-1 junior guard JaMel Allen.

Two of Goochland’s losses came to James River District rival Randolph-Henry. The Bulldogs beat Greensville County in the Region 2A final last weekend.

Central’s Luke Estep said the team will definitely not be looking past Goochland.

“I’m expecting a good game,” Estep said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout by any means. I think it’s going to be decided by single-digit points.”

Central senior Varsey Bright said that the Falcons will need to be able to handle the pressure that the Bulldogs will bring on defense.

“We expect aggression, up-tempo basketball, kind of like R.E. Lee, but they’re not as big,” Bright said. “But we expect them to get up in our face. We are practicing to handle the ball and take care of it.”

It is the first state appearance for Central since 2002 when the Falcons lost to Nandua High School in the state quarterfinals.

Central junior point guard Jared Patton said the team has done a lot better than he expected this season.

“It’s like a dream come true,” he said. “I can’t believe that it happened. I knew we were going to be good, but I didn’t know we were going to be this good.”

Central had six players score in double figures in the loss to Robert E. Lee. For the season, the Falcons have had a very balanced offensive attack. Estep is averaging 15.1 points per game, followed by Bright (11.4 points per contest), Patton (9.9), Sam Shifflett (9.0), Bryan Davis (8.9) and Dominic Strother (8.7).

Strother, a freshman, said the season has been better than he could have ever imagined.

“It’s been a pretty cool season,” Strother said. “I have a lot of seniors on my team that look out for me, help with me with whatever I need, and the coaches are looking out for me.”

Whittle said the school was taking a bus load of students and fans to the game, and he expects there to be a good crowd for the Falcons tonight. Davis said he doesn’t think playing on the road will affect the team.

“In my opinion, I think we play better on the road,” Davis said. “We’ve won games on the road. We’ve traveled just as far, so I think we’ll be fine.”

The Falcons had a memorable 24 hours last weekend. Davis hit a buzzer-beating jumper to give Central a 45-43 win over George Mason on Feb. 23 and a state berth. Just 24 hours later, the Falcons had the defending state champs on the ropes before eventually falling to Robert E. Lee.

Despite the loss, the players said that they gained confidence from the loss to the Leemen.

“I think we learned a lot, but I definitely think we proved ourselves,” Shifflett said. “Going in there a lot of people were like oh, you guys are going to lose by 25. You have no chance. And we went out there, we got a big lead. And we ended up, I don’t want to say blowing it, but they ended up coming back. But we definitely proved ourselves, proved we can play with the big dogs.

“I think that was important to the team aspect because now we’re like ‘hey we have a legitimate shot at this thing.'”