ELKTON — Dalton Jefferson stepped back and marveled at the amount of people in the stands an hour before East Rockingham played Goochland in the Virginia High School League Class 2 boys basketball semifinals at Mills Godwin High School in March.
The Eagles maintained that type of support throughout their entire historic postseason run and even though they ultimately came up short, falling to Radford in the VHSL Class 2 state championship game, it was that three-week stretch that left its mark on the mind of Jefferson.
“Although it is bittersweet, I will never forget it,” he said. “The support we had during that run was unbelievable. We couldn’t have asked for a better turnout during those late playoff games.”
That type of small-town feel the East Rockingham community has provided to Jefferson over the past couple of years, he said, is why he chose to stay close to home for the next four.
Jefferson, a 6-foot-6 versatile post player for the Eagles, will continue his basketball and academic career at James Madison as a preferred walk-on.
“The main reason I chose to play at JMU was because it was so close to home,” Jefferson said. “It’s very important to me that my parents, family and friends can come to the games. I had a great connection with the coaching staff and just felt like I fit there.”
The recent ERHS alum’s recruitment didn’t blow up until a senior season that saw him named the Shenandoah District Player of the Year and earn first-team All-Region 2B and first-team All-Class 2 honors.
He averaged 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game while shooting 51 percent from the field. He also shot 39 percent from 3-point range.
“Dalton’s biggest strengths are his ability to shoot the basketball and his versatility,” East Rock coach Carey Keyes said. “He can stretch the floor with his shooting ability, but can also score around the rim. He has very good length, defensively, around the basket and I think he is an underrated passer.”
Jefferson’s game has grown since he first played on the ERHS varsity squad as a freshman and was mostly known for his back-to-the-basket abilities.
Since then, he developed into one of the more prolific shooters in the area and a player that was a matchup nightmare for teams throughout the Eagles’ postseason run.
“Dalton certainly is one of the best all-around players that has come through our program,” Keyes said. “His résumé speaks for itself.”
Jefferson ranks first on the all-time list at East Rockingham in rebounds and blocked shots and is second in points scored.
Despite all of his statistical accomplishments, his teammates and coaches insisted it was his off-the-court contributions that stood out the most.
“He is my brother,” ERHS sophomore Tyler Nickel said. “He made the entire year pretty successful, but also very fun because I got to play with someone I am so close to. … He is a fun and funny dude and is one of the realest people I know. He’s someone that I will never have to wonder about having my back.”
Nickel, who was a standout as a freshman this past season for the Eagles and earned his first Division I scholarship offer from the Dukes in April, said knowing that Jefferson will be close by is exciting and that their relationship will stay strong.
“I will still be pushing him to be successful and he knows I’ve got him and he’s got me,” Nickel said.
It wasn’t always clear Jefferson would play basketball in college, however, as he garnered interest at the Division III level for baseball, too, throughout his first three years.
This season, however, his play on the court suddenly brought an array of new schools into the mix, including Shepherd University — a Division II school in West Virginia.
“I took an official visit to Shepherd and it was a very tough decision,” Jefferson said. “Passing up a scholarship [to SU] to play as a walk-on was not easy. But I talked it over with my parents and Coach Keyes and they helped to guide me to my decision.”
Jefferson said he grew up going to games at JMU with his dad, went to a couple of camps last summer and throughout the school year and eventually started to get the attention of Dukes coach Louis Rowe.
Once the two began having conversations, Jefferson said it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“I have so much to prove because I am just a walk-on, but I am using that to fuel my motivation to go out there and give it everything I have every time I step on the court,” Jefferson said.
The relationship between the East Rock program and JMU is continuing to grow with the commitment of Jefferson and the recent scholarship offer to Nickel.
For a team coming fresh off its first-ever state tournament appearance, Keyes said he hopes it is just the start of things to come for the future of his program.
“I think it shows that we have players in our program that can play at that level,” Keyes said. “It is extremely positive for the community to have local players at JMU. It’s a win-win situation.”
There’s no doubt it’s an ideal situation for Jefferson, who not only gets to play at his “dream school,” but also stay close to home.
When he reflected back to that state tournament run and specifically the state semifinal game in Richmond, he couldn’t help but note the impact that night had on him.
And how he’ll carry it with him the next four years in Harrisonburg.
“Playing close to home means everything to me,” Jefferson said. “My family is so important to me. I’m excited to get the season started.”
“I am playing for not only East Rock,” he added, “but the entire Shenandoah Valley.”