For Highland Springs girls basketball coach Franklin Harris, the first day of tryouts ahead of the upcoming season was like Christmas day.
“I tell everybody that every year, that’s the early Christmas present for any coach because you’re back in the gym and ready to go,” said Harris, who’s entering his 14th year coaching the Springers.
High school basketball teams across the Richmond region have begun official practices during the first couple of weeks of November in advance of the 2021-22 season.
But Richmond and Henrico public schools canceled their 2020-21 seasons because of the pandemic. So coaches at Armstrong, John Marshall, George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson, Huguenot, Deep Run, Mills Godwin, Douglas Freeman, Glen Allen, Henrico, Hermitage, J.R. Tucker, Varina and Highland Springs are facing unprecedented unknowns with teams that haven’t taken the court for official competition since early 2020.
“After missing a year, it’s like it gave me a new sense of happiness, urgency and excitement,” Harris said of tryouts this fall.
“Because it’s different. Years past, you always knew what you had going into next year. But we knew, when the season got canceled, all my seniors are gone, I have no idea what’s coming. And you really had no idea until you started workouts in August.”
The Springers graduated eight seniors, six of whom went on to play in college.
Harris has one senior this season, Lucy Bassett, who was a role player as a sophomore on Highland Springs’ 2019 state semifinalist team. Bassett is the only player on this year’s team with any varsity experience.
“I have 11 questions marks,” Harris said when asked how many unknowns he’s facing while preparing his Springers to take the court.
“It is a daily question because, by losing that year, we are so young.”
He’s never had a preseason akin to this year’s, but Harris said he’s enjoyed the return to basics and increased importance of teaching the game. He jokingly calls his team the “diaper brigade.”
He’s talked to other Henrico and Richmond public schools coaches, and said most everyone is facing similar challenges.
At Armstrong, boys basketball coach Darryl Watts is entering his 19th season at the helm. He has two players on this year’s team with varsity experience.
During the summer, those two players called Watts on a Saturday and asked him to take them out to eat. So they went to Buffalo Wild Wings, and discussed defining expectations for the Wildcats’ upcoming season.
“I told them, my program is going to look different postpandemic than it did prepandemic,” Watts said. “Some things, they may not understand why we’re doing it. But the onus was on them to make sure it got done. I’m holding them accountable for the other 10 [players] and making sure we’re all on the same page.”
Watts, like Harris, has focused more on fundamentals in practices leading up to the season. He’ll say terms like “V-cut,” and “triple threat,” and his players don’t know what he’s talking about.
“So you have to show them,” he said. “But the good thing about it is, you don’t have to unlearn any bad habits. You teach them the way you want it to be taught. And you keep repping it until it becomes second nature.”
Early in practices, one of Watts’ players told him he couldn’t wait for Watts to draw up a play on the whiteboard. The players are more excited than they’ve ever been to take the court, Watts said.
“They understand that, right now, we’re up against the clock,” said Watts, whose Wildcats will play their first official game Dec. 3.
“So every day means something. Every drill means something. And one thing I try to impress upon them, individually, is to get better every day by 1%. Then we will collectively get better.”
Glen Allen boys coach Drew Manton is beginning his first season leading the Jaguars after being elevated from an assistant role.
Manton said COVID-19 screenings and figuring out how to facilitate a full house of fans in the gym have added some stress to his preparation. But at the same time, levels of excitement for his staff and players are off the charts.
“They’re pumped,” he said. “Kids have been talking about this ever since we opened school again. Being able to get to basketball season is a win in itself, and now that it’s here, they’re excited to be at practice every day and be around their teammates.”
Manton has four seniors — Sean McElwain, Brendan Coughlan, Kelvin Choice and Cliff Fuller — who were pulled up to the varsity level as sophomores.
They’ve led the way in practice, Manton said, and are part of a strong core of seniors who’ve played together for years.
But Glen Allen’s practices, like Highland Springs’ and Armstrong’s, have still looked different from years past.
“We start every day now, and I’m kind of emphasizing 35 to 40 minutes a day of relearning how to finish around the rim, relearning how to pass, how to set our feet and shoot,” Manton said.
He’s been a teacher and assistant at Glen Allen for years, so Manton had a relationship with his players prior to taking the head job.
But establishing his culture after two years off the court has been a challenge.
“Being able to restart my culture now that we have the team, it’s kind of starting from the ground up,” Manton said. “I’m sure a lot of programs around the area are going through the same thing.”