Commentary: St. John's Gamble Pays Off
By Ryan Lazo, sports editor
Feb 18, 2014, 14:59
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
HOPEWELL — First-year Hopewell head coach Robbie St. John had a decision to make prior to the start of the basketball season on whether to implement the full changes he wanted to make to his team or just slightly change the approach and keep the status quo until the next season.
Yet, St. John knew that while not implementing his full style of offense and defense may lead to more victories on the court, it would cheat his two seniors of a chance to win when it mattered most. True to form, it's been an up-and-down season for the Blue Devils with struggles on the defensive end being the most critical.
However, as the season came to a close, even through three consecutive losses to Petersburg, Meadowbrook and Dinwiddie, it was obvious something was brewing in Hopewell. St. John's squad had grown tighter defensively and had begun filling their roles to perfection from the starters to the last man on the bench.
And while the win over Matoaca — and snapping their 12-game winning streak in the process — was big in its own right, the Blue Devils' opening-round Conference 26 Tournament victory over the Crimson Wave was even bigger.
They vanquished the mental hurdle which was Petersburg while also solidifying St. John's belief before the season to change their entire defense as it led to Hopewell's biggest win in recent memory.
"We contemplated as a staff whether we were going to cut some corners this year and work on it this summer or we were going to throw it all at them," St. John explained. "And with our record coming in, I've second-guessed that because you can get away with cutting corners."
Although that's not the way St. John has operated throughout his coaching tenure before coming to Hopewell last Summer, specifically in his four years as head coach at William Campbell.
During his tenure, St. John led William Campbell to the Region B Tournament in three of his four years, including being just five points away from making a state tournament appearance. And it was in those last two years where his team understood the type of play it would take to win, except the process looks to have taken hold quicker in Hopewell.
The Blue Devils defense took its punches early in the season with back-to-back double-digit losses in the season's first two games. Yet, over the last two games, St. John's squad has become more stingy and has learned when to utilize traps and when it's best to just sit back and play man-to-man.
"I felt like at this time, if we could get to this point where the kids are understanding defensively about rotation, it could work," St. John said of his team's progress. "We don't ever call traps. That's something they pick up on from things they read and see from film. I just didn't want to cheat our two seniors. If we had gotten to this point and didn't get it, that would have been on me. But I really feel like we understand what we are doing and are doing a great job with it."
Ryan Lazo/Hopewell News/News-Patriot
All one needed to do was look at the confused look of the Petersburg players as they struggled to get open looks or create separation to understand the type of impact the Blue Devils' defense had.
The Crimson Wave's leading trio of scorers in Gemonta Jackson, Gevon Arrington and Kaimonne' Douglas were held to a combined 40 points as none could get into a rhythm offensively during the dominating performance.
And the Hopewell win was made even more impressive that they captured a 76-70 win — at one point it was a 20-point advantage — without getting as much as a single point from their leading scorer Daniel Saunders.
Instead, it was a 31-point effort from sixth-man Deonte Jones and a 20-point effort from senior Tabyus Taylor which paved the way for the win. Yet, the production even trickled down to the reserves who either made an impact offensively like Antoine Ford who scored 7 points or defensively like Johnnie Harrison.
"It's one of those things that in a conference like ours it doesn't matter what seed you are, if you are going to do something you need to beat quality teams," St. John said. "No disrespect to anyone else, but I think we climbed the biggest hurdle for us. It doesn't mean we are going to come out with a win, but if we stay focused and play with that kind of effort, I think we will be right there at the end of that game."
That type of confidence and this kind of play is a far cry from Hopewell's dismal 1-4 start to the season, but the commitment St. John and his staff had to his system has paid dividends at the end of the season.
No matter what happens during the rest of the Conference 26 Tournament, Hopewell is a team trending upward with a young core just mastering the intricacies of St. John's system, providing hope for a promising future.