SHS Hosts Barnstormers From Down Under
PENN LAIRD — After about 21 hours of flying and 35 hours of total travel time, Blake Ward and his Australian basketball teammates found themselves across the globe on Dec. 26 to start an 18-day tour of America.
It didn’t take Ward long to fall in love with a fast-food restaurant.
“No Arby’s in Australia,” Ward said. “I like how the chips are all still together and in spirals, as well.”
And he might dream of the chicken tenders when he returns to Gippsland, Victoria.
“We don’t really have those, either,” said Ward, who also enjoys the free refills standard in American restaurants. “We usually have [chicken] in nuggets or sometimes chicken strips, but they don’t really taste the same as the tenders. They’re good.”
So is American basketball — which is part of the reason seven Australian boys between 16 and 18 years old made the trip that cost nearly $6,000 apiece. The trip includes watching an NBA game (Oklahoma City at Charlotte) and a college basketball game (Wake Forest at North Carolina), a trip to Disneyland in California, and competing in seven high school games along the way.
Their latest stop was Spotswood High School on a snowy Thursday.
After a pregame meal catered by Aroma Buffet & Grill, Ward and a few other Latrobe City Energy players couldn’t help themselves, venturing out into the white stuff. Some even tasted it. The only snow they had seen — if any — was on the ground in the Australian mountains. Not like this. Not falling from the sky.
“It was pretty weird,” said Ward, a 16-year-old rising junior whose favorite NBA player is Andrew Bogut. “The first time, I just wanted to run out and see what it was like.”
The Aussies also have never seen Spotswood’s brand of up-tempo basketball ever before.
Senior guard Tucker McCoy led five SHS starters in double figures with 24 points, including three 3-pointers.
Ben Barlow had 16 points and Lachlan Ware added 11 for the Energy, who lost 103-45.
“Well, we’ve seen nothing like that in Australia,” Brad Watson, an 18-year-old forward, said of Spotswood’s style of play. “It’s a lot faster, physical, and they make their shots a lot more. In America, we’ve seen bits like that, but nothing as heavy as this we just played.”
Latrobe City had just a seven-man roster to deal with the full-throttle Trailblazers (10-0), who reached the Division 3 state title game last season.
Energy coach Chris Watson understood it would be hard. But the Aussies — who have already played Mt. Airy and North Surry in North Carolina and battled R.E. Lee in a 64-55 defeat on Dec. 30 — didn’t come all this way just for basketball. They came to experience the United States.
As part of their stop at Spotswood, the Energy and an Australian girls’ team (the Horizon Dolphins) spent the whole day at the school, accompanying SHS basketball players to class. Instead of hotels, the Australian players stayed with the families of the Spotswood players Thursday night.
They did likewise with players from R.E. Lee.
“I learned what a biscuit was,” Brad Watson said. “I didn’t know. I thought like, you know, like a chocolate chip cookie? We ate it with gravy and sausage for breakfast [in Staunton].”
McCoy said he was hosting two Australian players.
“That was probably one of the coolest things I’ve been a part of,” McCoy said of the experience. “… They’re the same as us really. They all have iPhones, too. They follow the NBA and all that stuff just as much as we do. It’s crazy. I didn’t think they were the same as us, just on the other side of the world. It’s really cool just to talk with them.”
The friendly, unmistakable twang of their Australian accents also made the interaction between players and coaches fun.
“Some of them were thicker than others,” McCoy said. “It was kind of tough to hear, understand what they were saying. But you get used to it a little bit. I know the girls at Spotswood liked their accents.”
On the court, the differences were vast. At the high school level, Australians use a larger key and a deeper 3-point line that’s comparable to the pros. They also employ a shot clock in high-level tournaments. But the physical game is by far the biggest difference.
“The first couple games were very difficult, because we can’t use much physical bodies in Australia,” Brad Watson said. “… I had to learn to use my body a bit more and more efficiently and be smarter.
“You run into a defender; it’s not called a foul anymore. It’s called good defense.”
Another clear difference between the two countries was the time difference, both in day and season.
“We’ve come from summer, and we’ve come to snow,” Coach Watson said. “It’s mindboggling.”
Brad Watson, the coach’s son, has already graduated from Lavalla Catholic College — it has three campuses that include two junior high schools (grades 7-9) and a high school (grades 10-12). In Australia, schools run from February to early December.
So how in the world did Australian basketball find its way to Penn Laird?
SHS coach Chad Edwards said it was former Lee coach Paul Hatcher that “planted the seed” of the idea, telling Edwards “it’s worthwhile doing and it’s a very unique experience for everyone.” The Leemen have played Australian teams for a decade. When Edwards and SHS girls’ basketball coach Chris Dodson saw in June they had 21 games and room for one more, they made some calls to make the Australian Invasion happen.
Plus, the games count.
Spotswood athletic director Tim Leach said the games are sanctioned with the National Federation of State High Schools and, in turn, the Virginia High School League.
Chris Watson said he liked how American high schools operated athletics. In Australia, townships have that job. While the Energy might train a couple times a week, the Blazers are practicing or playing six out of every seven nights in-season.
In fact, sometimes, school only lasts three to four hours a day in Kangaroo country.
The Australian coaches told Edwards, “You guys take school way too seriously.”
“The interesting thing is, the criticism in America is we don’t take school seriously enough,” Edwards said.
Ward 1 0-0 2, Watson 4 0-2 8, Barlow 6 2-2 16, Ware 4 3-4 11, Bertoli 2 0-3 4, Lowe 1 0-0 3, Thorne 0 1-3 1. Totals: 7 6-14 45.
McCoy 9 3-4 24, Davis 4 1-2 11, Saylor 7 0-0 14, Lasam 7 0-0 16, J. Kier 6 2-2 16, Hinkle 1 1-2 3, R. Kier 2 1-1 5, Shifflett 1 0-0 2, Irvine 2 3-3 8, Morris 2 0-0 4. Totals: 41 10-14 103.
Latrobe City 10 11 12 12 – 45
Spotswood 30 32 23 18 – 103
3-Pointers—LC 3 (Barlow 2, Lowe); SHS 10 (McCoy 3, Davis 2, J. Kier 2, Lasam 2, Irvine). Fouls—LC 8; SHS 11. Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—LC 29 (Watson 9); SHS 38 (Lasam 6).