Tone Setters: Western leans on defense, balance in state semifinal run

Photo by Ashley Thornton

To get an idea of just how much Western Albemarle’s boys basketball team values taking charges, in the Warriors’ version of a total performance statistical measure, charges taken count as a +5.  It’s going to take two or three baskets or a 5-for-5 stretch at the free throw line to get that same +5.


“I think every year we’ve had a couple of players who loved to step up and take charges,” said Western’s Jed Strickland. “You’re putting your body on the line, taking one for the team.”


Strickland should know, he’s one of them. He’s been battling for the team lead in taken charges with Charlie Weyher all season long. Strickland has absorbed the blunt force of a charge 18 times this season and while Weyher may be neck-and-neck this year, Strickland’s entire career at Western is about plays like a taken charge. The Warriors’ senior does a lot of the thankless jobs that have helped power the Warriors to a third-straight state tournament.


Along with Chris McGahren and Teo Rampini, he’s part of a senior trio that has helped set a unique tone and approach to this year’s squad that’s led the Warriors to their state final four clash with Northside in the Class 3 semifinals Tuesday night at the Salem Civic Center. 


“We’re not your typical basketball team,” Strickland said. “We pride ourselves on defense more than offense and on offense we execute instead of having these incredible plays that show up on the highlights. We just do what we need to do to be successful.”  


That’s made the Warriors particularly hard for teams in the playoffs to figure out what to do with Western and how to defend them. Whoever is open is capable of producing. Try and lock down one player and anyone else in the lineup is capable of going off. And solving Western’s suffocating defense is another matter entirely.


While Strickland has expanded his offensive role some this season with the graduation of Ryan Ingram, who rightfully carried the offensive load for Western during his time there, he hasn’t stopped doing any of the things he did before. Like marking the opposition’s top players.


“He just goes out there and competes and plays,” McGahren said. “He’ll go after his assignment on every play and he’ll go after boards and just scrapping and getting loose balls.”


Which is why, charges taken and all, Strickland has as much impact on the game for Western as any other player in the area does. He averages 10.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while swiping 53 steals during the regular season and taking 18 charges during that span. He influences a ton of plays on either end of the court. Strickland takes pride in that assignment as the team’s defensive stopper, but he’s also clear that even that task doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  


“I like to embrace it and take pride in defense,” Strickland said. “(But) it’s not just me, it’s the team behind me. We play defense with five people, as a whole team and we all just embrace that role.”


He isn’t the only senior that has maximized his abilities and figured out a way to play a versatile role with their skillset. The Warriors know what they are and perhaps most importantly, what they aren’t.


“We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we don’t put pressure on ourselves to make a certain point, we just want to play the best that we’re capable of playing,” McGahren said.


Western coach Darren Maynard drew an analogy between Strickland and UVa’s Isaiah Wilkins, an impact defensive player who contributes in a key way on offense that doesn’t always show up in the scorebook. To extend the comparison, Maynard pointed to McGahren as the team’s Devon Hall, an all-around impact combo guard who is an elite defender and can knock down deadly 3-pointers while also often taking charge of the ball-handling duties. McGahren averages 12.0 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. Throw in the other senior who’s played a big role for several years in big man Rampini, who averages 8.1 points and 5.9 boards per game and you’ve got a strong core of players who know exactly what they’re supposed to do each night and rarely try and play outside themselves.


The fact that the seniors are all comfortable in their roles and their identities as players helps open up the space for younger players like Tommy Mangrum to shine as well. The Western seniors aren’t going to be players that demand the ball in crunch time because they’re confident in everyone on the roster.


“Against Hidden Valley, when we called the lob play for Tommy, I had the utmost confidence he was going to put that in, he was huge down the stretch,” McGahren said.


And the lob worked. Mangrum knocked down the tough bucket in the lane to clinch a state final four berth for the first time in nearly 20 years.


“I’ve been thinking about it ever since it happened and I would live that moment 1,000 times over again because there’s nothing better,” Mangrum said.


He’s not the only young player who has made their presence felt, with Garrett Payne having a particularly big impact around the rim with 56 blocks during the regular season while Weyher came into his own as a ball-handler throughout the year. There’s also Gabe Nafzinger and Daniel Brown who’ve stepped up in key moments.


Those young players have found the space to carve out a role for themselves in part because of the tone the seniors set. That group didn’t waver even during a regular season where big wins became elusive as losses to Albemarle and Louisa County in close contests stacked up. Instead of dropping their heads, the seniors stayed the course, believing everyone can contribute, everyone can have an impact. Because in the end, all those seniors want to do is keep winning and keep playing. They’ll get a chance to make some serious history. A win over Northside would put Western in its first state title game.


“It’s an opportunity that 20 years worth of players haven’t had and that’s hard to wrap our heads around right now,” McGahren said. “But it’s a special opportunity that we want to make the most of.”


They’ll get the chance to make the most of it Tuesday on the road in Salem.