FRONT ROYAL -- Warren County’s boys basketball team will take plenty of good cheer into the holidays.
The Wildcats, who won only three games in head coach John Kelly’s first season at the helm last winter, have nearly doubled that win total already this season and head into the Christmas break with a 5-4 record.
Better yet, all five of Warren County’s wins have come in its last six games, and Friday night’s 70-49 romp over James Wood was a fine way to end the 2018 calendar year.
“We talked about how this was our 2018 championship,” Kelly said after the victory. “This was our Super Bowl for this year, and coming into the new year having an actual winning record would be huge for our program. For their morale, they’ve won five of their last six, so they’re playing good ball. It’s just maintaining it. It was a sloppy game tonight, and we can’t play like that moving forward.”
Kelly, whose team had one win at this point a year ago, said the Wildcats’ biggest improvement this season has been its defensive speed, and Warren County thrived in that area against the Colonels, forcing 16 turnovers -- including eight steals -- and scoring 14 fastbreak points.
The Wildcats’ ability to turn their defense into offense fueled the game’s decisive turnaround in the second period when Warren County turned a 7-point deficit into a 38-29 halftime lead with a 20-4 run to close out the second period.
The Wildcats pushed the lead to 11 early in the third quarter and never led by fewer than 9 points the rest of the way. They ran away from James Wood in a lopsided fourth period during which Warren County forced eight turnovers.
“We were pressuring the ball,” said Wildcat senior Robert Cameron, who scored 23 points to lead a trio of double-figure scorers that included Aidan deVenoge (14 points) and Gabe Davis (11). “Against this team, we were big on it in practice, pressuring the ball, because they don’t really have the best ball-handlers, so we had to make a key on stopping the ball, pressuring the ball, getting turnovers and that made our offense go.”
Warren County has ridden that style to success since starting the season 0-3 with losses to Class 4 foes Millbrook (by 15 points), Handley (by 26) and Kettle Run (by 18).
The Wildcats’ five wins include a 50-49 victory over Sherando, another Class 4 school, a 71-67 win over Clarke County and a pair of victories over Strasburg, and their only loss since Dec. 3 is a forgettable 70-32 defeat at Kettle Run.
“I think really for them it’s learning to take one step forward after every win, not looking at the whole big picture at the end of the season,” Kelly said. “We’ve been competitive in every single game except for one where we laid an egg, and (we're) learning that we can play with anybody but we have to learn how to maintain a lead, keep a lead, and learning how to win is the hardest thing you can do. And if they’re learning that early in the season, that’ll pay off come February.”
The trick right now for the Wildcats will be maintaining the momentum they’ve built while navigating the long layoff that comes with the holidays. Warren County doesn’t play again until a Jan. 2 road game at Clarke County.
“We gotta work hard when we come back for practice,” Cameron said. “We’ve gotta work back into it. We can’t be lazy.”
Kelly didn’t seem too concerned about his team’s ability to keep up the intensity over the next week and a half.
“They’re competitive. You can tell from our younger players, from our sophomores to our seniors, they kind of battle back and forth, so it gives us good practice situations where we’re able to make it almost like a game situation,” Kelly said. “The sophomores wanna step up; our seniors wanna keep their spots and it kind of makes it a battle. We go at it hard in practice, sometimes too hard, so I hope that continues over the break. It’s a chance to clean some stuff up and learn some new things too.”