The business is finally complete. Now the fun can begin.
The L.C. Bird Skyhawks, who have taken a serious approach to every game this season, hardly wanting to touch the 5A South Region Championship trophy when they again won it two Saturdays ago, were more than happy to accept the 5A State Championship hardware when the Skyhawks defeated Bethel for the third time this season, 65-52, to finally reach the mountaintop.
In this, his sixth season at the helm in Chester, head coach Troy Manns celebrated his team's accomplishment with a very calm demeanor, accepting the trophy, holding it up for reporters to take pictures, then walking over to hand it to the young men who earned it.
Mario Haskett, who will play his next competitive game at Harvard, finished his Skyhawk career in epic fashion, scoring 20 ponts to L.C. Bird, who finishes the season with a record of 27-1. Jaylen Dillard and Pinky Wiley each scored 13 points, Dillard registering 11 of his in the second half as the Skyhawks held Bethel at bay after building their lead in the first half with a 34-23 advantage at intermission.
When asked about the traits they've learned as Skyhawks, each answered with a key part of this championship run.
"Leadership. There were great leaders here before us," Haskett noted. "There are good leaders and bad leaders, Coach tells us that all the time. You have to decide which one you want to do."
"Playing hard," noted senior Cam Henry, who added ten points, eight rebounds and three assists. "You can't take any game different."
L.C. Bird learned a lot from their loss to Potomac a year ago at this same point, and used it throughout the season, especially Saturday, never panicking, especially early in the second half when Bethel turned up the defensive pressure, the Skyhawks' rhythm offensively briefly disappeared, and it seemed there might be a chip in the armor.
But playing quality teams like Bethel, like Varina, like VISAA State Champion Trinity Episcopal and John Marshall, the last two on the road in front of huge Saturday night crowds, that is what galvanized this group, preparing them for making the final push. In the fourth quarter, Bethel never seriously threatened as the Skyhawks answered every Bruin basket with one of their own, and hit free throws down the stretch to seal the victory.
This team had a target on its back since the first day of practice. With Wiley, Haskett, Tyrek Williams and Jyles Webster back, and Jaylen Dillard joining the team, L.C. Bird topped the RVA Sports Network Top 10 Preseason Poll way back at Thanksgiving Weekend. They never lost that ranking.
"We try to tell them that every game is important because it's the next game, no game is bigger than any other game," Manns explained, discussing the coaching staff's approach to a rugged regular season schedule that included playing, and defeating, Bethel by ten points at the Hampton Coliseum on December 30th. "The advantage we had was from being here last year. We learned from that experience."
The Skyhawks were outrebounded 35-28, but forced fifteen Bethel turnovers, as the Skyhawks assist to turnover ratio finished at 12-8, getting the distribution they expect from the Conference 12 and 5A South Region Player of The Year in Wiley.
Dillard, Haskett, Wiley, Henry, Webster and Angelo Jackson now depart the program, ready for graduation and the next phase of their lives. They will be forever remembered by Manns, who wasn't necessarily welcomed to Chester when he took over for the 2011-12 season with a team returning that had just lost the old Group AAA title game against I.C. Norcom.
"Once I had a group of athletes who bought in, good things happen, so it took me awhile to convince the athletes to buy what I was selling," Manns said. "Once I had a group who bought in, this is exactly what I had envisioned."
When a team believes in each other, enjoys being around each other both on and off the court, and doesn't care who gets the big stat line, victories, and championships will come.
Both have arrived at L.C. Bird High School.