By Matt Delaney
Undefeated at 28-0 for the first time in school history this late into a season, Falls Church’s George Mason High School Mustang boys basketball team enters the first phase of the state tournament this Saturday against Graham High School at 11 a.m. at Robinson High School in Burke. The Mustangs are in search of their first ever state title, which, if they win Saturday, they will pursue in semifinal and final games in Richmond on Friday, March 11 and Saturday, March 12.
It would mark the fourth time a Chris Cappanola-coached Mustang team would make it to the final four, beginning 15 years ago in 2001 and again in 2011 and 2012.
This year’s Mustang team, while emulating the characteristic Cappanola model of team play and tough defense, also sports senior forward Robert Tartt who has already set a new career scoring record for boys basketball with 1,167 points, nudging ahead of Kenny Wilson’s mark of 1,164 points set back in 2000-01.
At the start of the season, Cappanola’s team made their intentions crystal clear: win Virginia’s 2A State title. The sentiment was broadcast by players and echoed by coaches, but until about a month ago when the postseason tournaments began it was still just an idea (albeit, a bold one) waiting to gain traction with wins over quality competition.
Now, after claiming the Conference 35 and 2A Region East titles in convincing fashion, the Mustangs look to cement a historic 28-0 season with a state title in a two weeks. Expecting them to be fazed by the challenge would be a mistake.
“We’re ready,” senior forward Robert Tartt said, before he jokingly backtracked out of superstition. “We’re gonna have a good chance this year.”
A “good chance” might be an understatement. The Mustangs, victories cover a spectrum of results, ranging from utter dominance to surprise contenders, and have kept the players honest on the court.
The 2A Region East tournament was no different. After fending off a late rally by Bruton High School to clinch a 68-63 win on Thursday, Feb. 25, the Mustangs pummeled Bluestone High School in the tournament final 69-42 on Saturday, Feb. 27.
Bruton nipped at Mason’s heels all night. Going into halftime tied at 28 apiece, the Mustangs jumped ahead by eight to end the third quarter up 49-41, but Bruton’s fire was yet to be doused. The Black Panthers outscored Mason 22-19 in a frenetic final frame though they failed to eclipse the Mustangs’ lead.
Saturday’s final was anything but exciting. Bluestone took the lead on one occasion – their first bucket on their first offensive possession – but failed to make the game interesting from then on.
Mason ended the first quarter up 20-13 and built on their lead to enter halftime 39-27. Bluestone had success from beyond the arc to start but lost their edge when confronted by Mason’s amorphous zone defense. The Mustangs outscored Bluestone 30-15 in the second half, seizing a comfortable enough lead that starters were pulled with minutes remaining to give reserves some playing time.
A sound approach to the game complemented by an awareness of their opponent’s flimsy morale made the Region final an easy, if not weird, way to go out on top.
“Game plan was perfect. They had no answers for us inside and once we went zone they were completely finished,” head coach Chris Capannola said.
“I figured it’d be nip-and-tuck the whole way because this is regional hardware you’re playing for [but] they seemed very ‘out of it.’ That’s not our fault, we gotta step on the gas on a team like that.”
Tartt was less perplexed when reflecting on the surprise absence of a competitive game last Saturday.
“A little [shocked] in the beginning, but then it just felt normal because we’ve done this to a lot of teams. We work harder than all the teams we’ve played so far, and that really helped [against Bluestone],” Tartt said.
It’s cliché to say, but with the state tournament matchup against Graham, everything that’s happened before this weekend’s game is null and void.
Thankfully Graham provides a soft entry into the tournament for Mason. Going 17-6 on their season, they’re tied with Bruton for the worst record among state tourney entrants. Furthermore, the team has been slumping with two consecutive losses to other tourney teams, Gate City High School and Dan River High School.
These are all good signs for Mason, but by no means are guarantees. The Mustangs received their toughest postseason test against Bruton, proving records only determine seeding – not results – in tournaments. Room for error is slim against Virginia’s best and win-or-go-home situations add another layer of pressure for Mason, who’ve already placed the onus upon themselves to be state champs.
But this Mason team may a notch above the title contenders of old. Their depth is unmatched, employing an eight-man rotation that can outlast and outplay contenders in all phases of the game. This year’s legendary win-streak surpassed their previous season’s 23-1 start that had Falls Church in an uproar. And while three games stand between them and their coveted goal, the team has never lost sight of what got them here.
“Some of the things it looks like we’re running a special play [but] we’re not, it’s just basketball,” Capannola said. “They know each other so well it looks good [and] they just love to play and love to compete.”