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Athlete of the Week: Estep rising to the challenge on the court for Falcons

Luke Estep

WOODSTOCK – Central High School first-year boys basketball coach Jeff Whittle said he and Falcons assistant coach Jeff Walters had a “little conversation” with junior Luke Estep prior to the start of the season.

The discussion centered around Estep’s anticipated role with the Falcons this winter, one that almost certainly would include the title of one of the program’s undisputed leaders. It was a new prospect for Estep, who spent his sophomore season as a significant contributor for Central (he was the Falcons’ second leading scorer last season, averaging 12.2 points per game) but did so on a roster containing six seniors.

The graduation of over half the roster, plus the transfers of two other players, left the Falcons little in the way of varsity basketball experience. Estep was the lone returnee with significant playing time when Central opened preseason practice in November, and both Whittle and Walters wanted to let the junior know that he’d be asked to do more on the court during the upcoming season.

Estep was already one step ahead. He knew the situation he’d be stepping into this season and played AAU basketball for the first time last summer with Strong Quality Basketball Association (SQBA) in Madison to help “build up my game a little more.”

“Knowing I was the only guy that had significant minutes last year, it helped me assume the leader role,” Estep said after practice Wednesday evening, “because last year I was a starter, I was a player, but I wasn’t really a leader because I had, what, six, seven seniors on the team last year? This year I had to be a leader and I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of that.”

Having scored 50 points over the last two games that coincided with a pair of Central victories, Estep, The Northern Virginia Daily’s Athlete of the Week for Dec. 26-Jan. 1, has been the go-to player the Falcons have needed after the team struggled through a stretch to open the season that included just one win in their first eight games.

“He’s been playing extremely well,” Whittle said. “He’s been playing well on both ends of the floor as far as he’s stepped his game up on defense … guarding people and keeping people in front of him, boxing out and rebounding the ball well for us.

“And then on offense he is asked to do a lot. We run a lot of actions for him to get the ball, and he’s producing right now. Hopefully he’ll continue to do that. A lot of it too is him, just his work ethic at practice. He’s always wanting to get some extra shots, some extra gym time in to improve his game and that’s what separates the great players is their work ethic and how much they wanna put into their game.”

Estep clearly felt no holiday hangover in the Falcons’ first game back from Christmas break on Dec. 28. He torched Shenandoah County rival Stonewall Jackson for 21 points in the first half on his way to 28 in the game, a career high.

His stellar night paved the way for a 66-50 Central victory that avenged a close loss to the Generals two weeks prior.

“The loss against Stonewall by one point the last time we played them, you know, made us angry, so we came out with intensity,” said Estep, who is averaging 14.3 points per game. “I think when we play with intensity it makes me feel better, makes me feel more comfortable, makes me feel more in sync where I can be able to hit the shots that I need to.”

Estep hit 8 of 19 field goals, including a trio of 3-pointers, and made 9 of 12 free throws, but his performance against Stonewall included much more than his deft shooting touch and put on full display the junior’s versatility on the basketball court.

In the absence of classmate Coy Jimenez, one of the Falcons’ most aggressive rebounders who missed last week’s game while battling the flu, Estep pulled down 10 rebounds. When the Generals began keying on Estep in the second half, he found the open teammate – he finished the game with six assists, also a career best, and in a two-minute span in the third period he assisted on a trio of 3-pointers from Mason Marston and Jared Patton.

Whittle said Estep’s scoring surge, which included a 22-point outing on Tuesday in a win over Rappahannock County, has been cued in part by Estep’s increased comfort within the Falcons’ offensive system. The head coach added that Estep has also become more than just a perimeter threat.

“The last three or four games he’s more slashing but I think he is versatile as far as he’s able to slash, he’s able to post up. He’s able to shoot the three. He’ll pick and pop, pick and roll,” Whittle said. “But I think lately more than anything, he’s attacking the basket and then he’s getting to the free-throw line. That’s always a good thing.”

Central returns to action Friday night with a road game at Warren County, part of a girls and boys doubleheader in Front Royal, during which Estep and the Falcons (3-7) will look to make it three straight victories against the scuffling Wildcats (3-8), though Whittle said the challenge for Estep may start becoming even greater.

“He’s gonna see more than likely the best defender,” Whittle said. “Coaches are gonna try to key him so he’s just gotta continue to get better and keep letting the game come to him.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com