The melting pot theory, one most often used to describe the ethnic makeup of the United States, holds that an amalgamation of multinational identities and cultures can come together to form a functional and successful group.
If there ever was a better example to prove the postulate, it would be the Northern Virginia Cavaliers, an AAU boys basketball team based out of the Potomac Valley. Comprised of players from African, African-American, Asian, Brazilian and Caucasian descent, the Cavaliers have found success even on the biggest of stages from some unlikely sources.
“We look different, a mixture of kids from all different races,” said head coach Jerry Lin, a 2001 graduate of Marshall High School and a five-year Statesmen assistant basketball coach. “Everybody else was dominantly black and white, so everyone always asks us where we’re from. They find it very unique, the way we look and the style of basketball that we play.”
Capped off by a 59-49 loss in the championship game to the Greensboro, N.C.-based Kingdom of Athletes (KoA), the Cavaliers went 6-1 in the Division III National AAU Championships last week in Hampton, Va., finishing as runner-up for the 15-and-under age group and pulling off the most successful run in program history.
The Cavaliers succumbed to fatigue in their third game of the day last Sunday, falling into a 21-12 hole early against KoA and also falling victim to their opponent’s furious substitutions and up-tempo style of play. While defense had carried NOVA throughout the tournament – the squad had given up 50 points just once prior to the championship game – KoA was the first team to score more than 20 points in the first half against the Cavaliers and entered the break with a 33-28 lead.
The Cavaliers made several runs in the second half, eventually cutting the margin down to one. However, KoA hit the clutch shot when it needed to, nailing all 10 of its free-throws in the closing three minutes to secure the championship.
“The championship game was tough because we were playing our third game of the day and the fatigue really hit us,” Lin said. “It really shocked us, how fast the game was going. We…didn’t have that extra oomph to get over the hump. I wish I might have used my bench better. That could have changed things, but it is what it is.”
Sango Amolo, a freshman at Falls Church High, led the Cavaliers with 14 points, nine of which came from beyond the arc. Sean O’Rourke (Freedom-South Riding) and Kevin Lastova (McLean) each hit a pair of three-pointers to help cut into the lead.
Despite the loss, the Cavaliers’ mood eventually turned upbeat.
“They were down at first, as any 15-year old would be, but I think it took them a little bit to recognize what they did,” Lin said. “Once they got our huge trophy, they got happy, and the personalities started coming out, blocking out the fact that they lost in the national championship game.”
The Cavaliers surged into the championship game with a stifling 42-38 win over the Virginia Venom, a squad that had scored at least 64 points in four of its six previous games. Despite a severe height disadvantage – the Venom boasted a front-court line of 6’4″, 6’3″, and 6’1″ – the Cavaliers used a strong performance from the entire roster to shut down one of the tournament’s most potent offenses.
All nine players on the Cavaliers’ roster scored in the game, even though none scored in double digits. With under 20 seconds remaining, Sachin Gangele (Falls Church) nailed two free-throws to secure the victory. Reserve guard Eddie Kedda (Freedom-South Riding High) led the Cavaliers in scoring with nine points on 60 percent shooting from the three-point line. Amolo and Gangele each tacked on seven points.
The Cavaliers entered the semifinals having rolled through the first two rounds of the tournament. On Saturday night, just hours after completing pool play, the squad beat St. Mary’s Panthers (Baltimore) 59-46. Amolo led the scoring with 17 points, while Thomas Van Wazer (McLean) chipped in 15 points and nine rebounds.
NOVA held its next-round opponent, Squash All Beef (Prince George’s County, Md.) to 12 first-half points and never looked back, staving off a late rally to win 48-42. Gangele netted all nine of his points in the second half, including a three-pointer from the corner with two minutes left. Mike James (Freedom-South Riding) led the scoring with 11 points, while Amolo added 10.
The success found at the National Tournament was something that was brewing in the Cavaliers’ waters throughout the season. In the Cardinal’s Basketball ‘April Opener’ tournament at Mount Vernon High School, the Cavaliers went 4-1 and finished in second place, a run that even surprised Lin.
The Cavaliers participated in a Loudoun County tournament for a state qualifier for Youth Basketball of America (YBOA), beating local Arlington Bulldogs at the buzzer in the semifinals. Lin described this moment as one that made him believe in the abilities of his squad.
“[After the buzzer-beater,] kids were going off, it was crazy,” he said. “We carried the morale to the championship and we came back from 14 points down to win. After that tournament … I had this belief that we were destined for greater things. It was a turning point for our season.”
Of the 12 tournaments the Cavaliers have played this year, they have finished as champions three times and runner-up three times. The squad has completed a tournament with a losing record only once, coming in the Hoop Magic’s ‘Spring Jamboree’ in late April. Since that, the Cavaliers have gone 28-6.
Despite the unique make-up of the team – the 11 Cavaliers hail from four different schools – the chemistry developed over the course of the season proved to be an added bonus.
Assuming no players depart, Lin should field the same roster up until the Cavaliers graduate from high school, something that excites him.
“I don’t know if there’s any words to describe how fortunate I feel as a coach. I’m completely ecstatic at the fact that I get to coach these kids who are not only great kids but also skilled basketball players,” Lin said. “It’s one of those rare circumstances in life where everything just falls into place where you’re in the right place at the right time.”