HARRISONBURG — According to Chad Seibert, no one wants to be “that guy.”
Sure, the second-year Eastern Mennonite High School coach said, everyone enjoys putting the ball through the basket.
But there isn’t a player on his roster that wants to be the one responsible for messing up a possession or ruining the Flames’ chemistry next season.
“When we do what we do, we produce a good shot,” Seibert said. “They’re all expected to step in and take those shots. As long as everyone makes the extra pass, looks for each other and does those little things, then everybody eats. As soon as one guy deviates from that, it can really mess up the chemistry. No one has been willing to be that guy.”
The pass-first mentality from Eastern Mennonite led the Flames to their most successful season in program history last year — the first under Seibert — as they finished as Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III runner-up for the first time in school history.
The Flames were led by five key seniors with the most notable being Virginia Independent Conference Player of the Year Zach Hatter, but won’t face much of a rebuild now with a trio of transfers coming to the school next year.
“There is a lot of positive energy around here,” Seibert said. “The culture within the school is phenomenal. The administration is unbelievably supportive. The mindset is kind of, ‘If you build it, they will come.’
“We felt like we had every single person in the community last year with two hands on the rope pulling in the same direction. That’s why we were able to have the success that we had. I don’t see that changing any time in the near future.”
The biggest name transferring to EMHS next season is former Turner Ashby standout Trey Gillenwater, a 6-foot-1 guard that was a first-team All-Valley District selection as a sophomore for the Knights. He’ll reclassify as a sophomore with the Flames.
Waynesboro’s Sean Cardoza, a 6-foot speedy two-way player, and Nick Jones, a 6-foot-2 blue-collar forward from Staunton, will also come to EMHS this season and reclassify as juniors.
“I’m young for my grade so it gives me an extra year,” Gillenwater said. “This will really help prepare me for college. I know Seibert is a good coach. I’ve known him since fifth grade. Playing with some of these guys in [Amateur Athletic Union] has been awesome, too. We’re just trying to stick together.”
All three players have played for Seibert through their AAU team, Virginia Blaze, but have also had the opportunity to work together this summer at Eastern Mennonite.
After already playing in various team camps alongside public schools such as Spotswood, Harrisonburg and Stuarts Draft, the Flames are at Liberty University this week and won all four games they played Monday, Seibert said, and will continue to play games today and Wednesday against other teams from across the state.
“I’m excited,” Cardoza said. “Based off our team camp, we look like we are going to be pretty nice this year. Chemistry is a big key. You can tell our chemistry is already growing. You can just see it when we get on the court together. I can’t wait to see how it grows in the regular season.”
Coming to EMHS wasn’t an easy decision for any of the three players, they said, as they noted the fact that some of their former teammates were frustrated with their decisions.
For Jones, who is interested in getting into the cyber-security field, the move provided more opportunities academically while Cardoza also mentioned the potential of preparing for college another year as a major key to making the switch.
“It was just a good opportunity,” Jones said. “Me and my family discussed everything. We just thought we should take the chance and go for it. [My former teammates] were a little bit disappointed. It was a hard choice. I didn’t want to leave them, but I just felt like this was a good opportunity for me.”
Arguably the toughest decision came for Gillenwater, who not only finished second in the Valley District in scoring last season with 16.1 points per game, but also led the league in assists (4.5).
He also was slated to be the TA’s starting quarterback in football this fall, but said once Marquis Woodyard announced his resignation as the Knights basketball coach two weeks ago after just one year on the job, his decision was that much easier.
The Knights are still searching for Woodyard’s replacement. Staunton coach Terrell Mickens and Waynesboro coach Sidney Diggs Jr. both declined comment for this story.
“I was thinking for a while about whether I was going to play football or not,” Gillenwater said. “Before I even decided to go to EMHS, I had decided I was going to just focus on basketball. That’s the sport I love and it’s what I wanted to focus on.”
What each player brings to the court is different, Seibert said, as each one specializes in different areas with Gillenwater bringing in the best all-around game as a prolific scorer.
In fact, Seibert gave the guard extremely high praise, calling him and fellow Flames teammate Chance Church — a senior who transferred to the school from Wilson Memorial before last season — two of the best shooters in the state.
“Trey’s scoring abilities and numbers speak for themselves,” Seibert said. “Trey’s scoring ability — in our style and with our guys with the way we pass the ball — he’s a threat to go for 25 any moment.”
As for Cardoza, who averaged 8.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game last season for the Little Giants, he’s been dealing with a partial tear in his Achilles this summer, he said, and hasn’t been able to participate in any team activities.
Despite that, Seibert said he remains excited at the thought of what the quick guard can provide for EMHS once he returns to the the court.
“His defensive ability is absolutely elite,” Seibert said. “His ability to pressure the ball and harass [opposing players] is big. He can put the ball on the floor in the halfcourt, break someone down off the dribble. You don’t have to run a play for Sean. He can create advantages for your team just wish his quickness and driving abilities.”
Jones, meanwhile, was a fiery leader for the young Leemen last season and said he took a lot of pride in doing the dirty work for them throughout their postseason run.
With the Flames, he’ll provide a solid inside presence alongside senior Aviwe Mahlong, but Seibert said he also has the ability to play any position on the court.
“He’s a kid who will step right in there and do the dirty work,” Seibert said. “He can guard the other team’s big guy if he needs to, rebound, screen. He’s also very skilled and can make plays off the bounce. We’ve played him inside, played him outside so far this summer. He’s very versatile on both sides of the floor.”
When adding the trio of transfers to the core group coming back in Church, Mahlong and sophomore Adam Hatter, it creates a lineup that Seibert said will be tough to defend.
“You kind of have to kind of pick your poison with what you’re going to take away and what you’re going to give up,” Seibert said. “We’ve got enough threats now to hurt you in a variety of ways.”
Gillenwater said the summer has provided him a glimpse of what it will be like.
He said that despite so many players having the ability to put up big numbers, everyone is focused on one thing — a return trip to the VISAA Division III tournament.
“I’m really excited,” Gillenwater said. “We’ve played really well together in team camp. It’s only been a week or two and we already seem to be meshing really well. I think everyone is just worried about winning. Literally, that’s all we care about. That helps a lot.”
As for the Flames, they’re in a strong position to contend not only next season, but for many years to come with a solid blend of experience and young talent on the roster.
That’s something Seibert said makes the program and the school attractive.
“We don’t become you,” Seibert said. “You become us. We’re teaching them what that means. I just think it’s really important to create an identity for your program and sell that vision.
“There are a million different ways to do it, but this is our way and this is what we believe in. This is the standard we’re going to hold each other to. … It’s been very humbling to have the amount of attention that we have.”
That attention is something both EMHS and the community have embraced after a special postseason run last year and is something it can expect moving forward with the upward trajectory of the basketball program.
When asked about the prospects of that, Seibert said he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon after the success of last year and with the way his current players are buying in.
After all, he said, nobody wants to be “that guy.”
“It has been some of the best basketball that you could see at any level,” Seibert said. “It’s a fun way to coach, a really fun way to play. The guys just can’t believe how much joy they’re having with this. It’s been wonderful.”