FRONT ROYAL — Central’s boys basketball team knew what it had in established varsity veterans like Jared Patton and Sam Shifflett, two returning starters from last season’s state semifinal squad. What head coach Jeff Whittle needed was some lesser-known players to step up and fill the void left by graduation losses. It appears the Falcons have already found those pieces.
Sophomore forward Dominic Strother, who cut his teeth at the varsity level last season and played well in spurts, and junior guard/forward Alex Neff, a first-year varsity player, have emerged as Central’s biggest offensive weapons in the first two games.
Strother, who at 6-foot-6 is a matchup nightmare for many teams, led the Falcons with 19 points in last week’s opener against Page County, while Neff added 18 points in his first varsity game. Those two reversed roles on Monday night against Skyline, with Neff leading the way with 21 points and Strother dropping an additional 19 points in the 73-66 win.
“It’s been huge,” Whittle said of the duo’s output. “With losing some keys players last year, and we had some guys coming back, but we also needed some other guys from the JV level, and then Dominic was obviously on varsity, but for him to play more as an upperclassman. They’re performing right now, especially on the offensive end.”
Though Patton scored 18 against the Hawks and Shifflett was hot early and chipped in 10, Neff’s and Strother’s fingerprints were all over Monday's win.
Neff did a little bit of everything early, scoring 8 points and pulling down four rebounds in a first period that ended with Central holding a 20-9 lead. He also converted a 4-point possession late in the first half by hitting a short jumper and making two free throws to help send the Falcons into halftime with a 35-30 lead.
In the fourth quarter, Neff hit two buckets in three Central possessions to help stretch the lead to 13 points and after Skyline rallied to cut that margin to three with 1:15 to play, he made a basket in the lane off a Patton assist to give the Falcons a 69-64 lead and set the stage for Patton’s victory-clinching free throws.
“I like it because I like to them to have faith in me to play basketball with them,” Neff said of getting the ball in key situations. “Some of the older guys who stood out last year are trying to get everybody involved, like Jared and Sam. If you notice, they haven’t shot nearly as much. They try to give everybody a chance, and then Dominic’s coming up big.”
Strother stayed quiet in the first half but erupted for 11 points in the third period. The outburst began with his 3-pointer from the wing 40 seconds into the frame and ended when he drove to his right, streaked through the middle of the paint and threw down a one-handed slam that extended the Falcons’ lead to 54-41 late in the quarter. The latter was an aggressive play that Whittle wants to see more of out of the laid-back sophomore.
“Coach keeps telling me to keep talking, move my feet, be active and everything like that, and try to hold the team down because I could be a big role on the team this year,” said Strother, whose putback off a Neff miss in the fourth period pushed Central’s lead back into double-figures with four minutes to play.
“I feel more comfortable as a sophomore than my freshman year because my freshman year, I was just getting used to the varsity level, but I had a lot of seniors that looked out for me,” he added. “And I have seniors right now that are still looking out for me and are just pushing me to go harder in practice and in games.”
Strother, who was 8-for-14 from the floor, added nine rebounds on top of his 19 points and blocked a shot on what would be the final play of the game. Neff finished with eight rebounds, was 5-for-6 from the free-throw line and made 8 of 13 field goal attempts.
“Alex plays hard,” Whittle said. “You never have to really ever question his drive and his passion and his intensity. He goes hard in practices and games, and that’s one of the reasons that makes him who he is. … He can put the ball on the deck and right now he’s shooting the ball pretty well from the perimeter, and he handles it well. He does a lot of things well. And he gets on the glass. He helps us out tremendously. He fits in well with who we’ve got.”