When Chad Seibert accepted the boys basketball head coaching job at Eastern Mennonite last year, he made it clear from the start that he wanted to build a program.
What the second-year EMHS coach didn’t realize was how quickly it would happen.
Coming off a loss to the Life Christian Academy in last year’s Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III championship game, the Flames are quickly reaching levels of success under Seibert that the program has never seen before.
“We have a lot of confidence and that’s because of Coach Seibert,” Eastern Mennonite guard/forward Aviwe Mahlong said. “He gives us a lot of freedom to just play our game. He tells us to share the ball and shoot a lot of 3s and that’s what wins us games.”
The Flames’ up-tempo, fast-paced attack made them one of the area’s most fun teams to watch a year ago and players have made it clear they’ll play a similar style this year.
But while the offense will continue to put up big numbers, led by Mahlong, Chance Church and Trey Gillenwater, the defensive improvement has been a focus, they said.
“That’s just what we’ve been working on all summer,” said Church, who thrives from 3-point range. “We know we are going to be outsized, but we just have to play scrappy and play at our pace. We have to play messy and play fast. That’s what we want to do. We want to run as fast as we can and space the floor out and play good defense.”
Eastern Mennonite certainly has no shortage of options to choose from offensively.
Mahlong and Church both averaged double-digit points a year ago for the Flames, but with Virginia Independent Conference Player of the Year Zach Hatter gone to graduation, Turner Ashby transfer Trey Gillenwater will be relied upon immediately.
“We put a lot of emphasis on [defense],” said Gillenwater, who ranked second in the Valley District in scoring last year. “We know we have guys who can score, but it’s a matter of stopping people. We put a lot of emphasis and it shows. We are able to get stops. It’s fun. Anyone on any night can go for a lot of points. We all just want to win.”
The focus on the defensive end also brings rewards offensively for the Flames.
As a result of their chaotic, fast-paced swarm defensively, transition buckets come easier for Eastern Mennonite and floor spacing becomes less of an issue.
“I don’t know if we’ll be as good defensively as we were last year, so it’s all the reason to try and push the pace and score more points,” Seibert said. “That’s where we really thrive — getting out and running and the defense sets the tone for that throughout.”
Seibert praised last year’s five seniors for the role they played for the program’s turnaround and the impact they left on many of the returners on this year’s team.
He said he can see that this year’s unit is slowly learning the style of play he wants to see on a consistent basis and he’s excited about the long-term potential of the group.
“They’re coming into it, figuring out how to play,” Seibert said. “One of the things we’ve talked about is building that chemistry. Competitive stamina is something we talk about a lot. It’s why we practice the way that we practice and mental toughness is a huge part of that.
“It’s new for these guys. They’re great sometimes and awful sometimes. They’re learning how to go through those mistakes with no excuses and move to the next play.”
The players, too, said they can see a difference after the historic run from a year ago.
“It’s changed the culture entirely,” Church said. “Before, we didn’t expect to win games. This year, we expect to win. We never get flustered and just play our game.”
Mahlong added: “I feel extremely comfortable. My new teammates have welcomed me. With Zach leaving, it just meant I had to step up a little more. I have to lead these guys.”
Mahlong and Church serve as the team’s only seniors and as the EMHS captains.
Both said they’ve happily embraced that role this year and will continue to do so.
“Everything is on me and Chance,” Mahlong said. “We’re the seniors on the team, so we have to be more vocal. We have to talk and just keep guys motivated.”
And while Mahlong and Church may be leaned upon for leadership, each member of the Flames has a specific role that they’ll fill in order to be successful, Seibert said.
As long as each one buys into those roles, the program Seibert’s building will grow.
“It’s been incredible,” Seibert said. “I couldn’t do it without [the players]. I have a big coaching staff, but it’s their team first. It all runs through them. They learned the right way to do it. That’s why those guys last year were so important. Aviwe and Chance are teaching the next group the way it is supposed to be done and that’s how you build a program.”