WOODSTOCK – Greg Jones first visited Woodstock in 1992, at which time he was recruiting former Central High School basketball standout Greg Gibson for a semi-professional league in Australia and wanted to meet with then-Falcons coach Jerry Walters. The 65-year-old Aussie, who formed a fast friendship with Walters, has made a handful of return trips to the Shenandoah Valley since.
Along the way, Jones has made various personal connections, including a chance meeting with Winchester native John O. Marsh Jr. – a former U.S. Secretary of the Army – in 2000. That meeting led to a lunch date with former Virginia state senator Russ Potts Jr. and a visit with the Georgetown University men’s basketball program.
In 2012, during another return to Woodstock, Jones made a visit to Massanutten Military Academy, where Chad Myers was coaching a powerhouse postgraduate boys basketball team that featured future Kansas University star Frank Mason III among a roster loaded with NCAA Division I signees.
During that visit, Myers floated the idea of Jones – who has coached basketball for 35 years – bringing one of his Australian club teams over to America to spend some time in Woodstock.
It’s been five years in the making, but Jones and Myers made that happen this past week, as the Norths Bears Youth League men’s U22 squad, a member of the Northern Suburbs Basketball Association in Sydney, Australia, spent the last 10 days at MMA during a break in their regular season schedule.
Jones, who coaches the Bears, said Monday that the overseas trip served as a cultural experience for his players and an opportunity to focus strictly on basketball. For him, it was a chance to visit the people he’s forged friendships with.
“It’s been a great journey, a great ride and it’s amazing how 9 1/2 pounds of air can lead you to different things,” said Jones, who resided in the Walters household during the trip, which began on June 4 and wrapped up on Tuesday.
“The journey I’ve had here with basketball, one, the friendships produced, the memories I’ve had, the associations I’ve developed, the warmth, friends, collegiality of everyone in Woodstock and the surrounds that I’ve been associated with, is part of my life’s memory now. And it’s all good, so it’s just been fantastic. And to bring my kids over here, that’s super too and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
The Bears, a group of 17 to 21 year olds, spent the past 10 days primarily focusing on basketball and worked out two times a day inside Massanutten Military Academy’s gymnasium under the tutelage of Myers and Colonels assistant coach Hayden Sowers. The frequency of practice alone was a new concept for many of the players, as scarce court availability in Sydney limits the Bears to two practices per week.
“It’s hard work but it pays off,” Liam Moss, 18, said of the workouts at MMA. “It’s what you need to get everyone better, and it makes the team better as well. It’s been showing in our last few practices, really starting to gel, starting to play well as a team. But definitely a step up in terms of workload but it’s good.”
Ari Vanderent, a 20-year-old member of the Bears, said the workouts generally followed a schedule, with skill sessions taking place in the morning and five-on-five drills in the afternoon.
The Bears had the opportunity to work out in front of several college coaches throughout the past week, and new Shenandoah University men’s basketball coach Adam Walsh was one of a handful of Division III coaches in attendance at MMA on Monday afternoon.
Both Moss and Vanderent said all of the Bears’ players used the trip to the U.S. to gain college exposure, with the goal being to advance their playing careers to the collegiate level in the states.
“We were all putting in extra effort in training and when we came over here we wanted to impress the coaches a little bit, show them what we have and show them what we play like in Australia and just kind of have fun with it,” Moss said.
The Bears also had the opportunity to venture out to surrounding colleges and visited the campuses of James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University, the University of Maryland and Marymount University.
Vanderent, who has visited the U.S. twice, said his “jaw dropped” at the size of the facilities at Maryland and JMU.
“When we went up to Maryland it’s like they have their own street. … It’s just like all the housing and the massive, massive facilities they have, you’d never get anything like that in Australia,” he said. “It’s just amazing.”
That was just the start of the cultural differences the Bears got to experience. Moss said the players gorged themselves on the wealth of fast food options that aren’t available in Australia, and while he said it’s weird that cars drive on the right side of the road, he added that interacting with the locals is like “meeting people you see on TV.”
The Bears were also treated to a Woodstock River Bandits game during their trip, and Vanderent said he was impressed with how friendly the people were.
“When we got here we went to one of the local baseball games the other night and most of the community was there and just like, ‘Oh, are you the boys from Sydney down at Massanutten playing basketball here?’” Vanderent said. “It’s just like they all knew who we were and (were) saying hello, and how friendly (they were) and how they accepted us and stuff like that.”
Jones said the Bears, who play a regular season schedule spanning from March to August, will have 52 hours between their return to Australia and a road game. They will continue to try to hold one of the top six spots in the Waratah Conference in order to claim a playoff spot, and Moss said he thinks all of the Bears are better after their latest overseas experience.
“I think coming over here is like a big gateway to playing basketball later on,” Moss said. “Coming here and playing, you really need to take advantage of the opportunity that’s given. We have coaches coming to watch so you really wanna make an impression and stamp your name in their minds. That and also the style of play that Coach Myers has been running us through, I think we’ll definitely take that back into our club team with Norths. It’s a real fast-paced, flowing motion but it’s really good. It’s opened up our offense and we’re getting a lot more different looks that we haven’t had in the past.”