By Nathan Hamme
Fifteen years! Hard to believe it had been that long but it only took some quick math to confirm it.
A decade and a half since my senior season playing basketball at George Mason High School. And yet, what I was watching was both familiar and strange. Mason was playing a home game against Prince Edward County in a regional quarterfinal match-up. The Mustangs’ red, white and black uniforms again contrasting with the Eagles’ purple and gold. And, of course, the coach roaming the sideline might as well have been a carbon copy, strikingly Teflon to the passage of time.
While the 2000-01 edition of the George Mason High School boys basketball team was able to eke out an overtime win over Prince Edward back at its then home court, “The Pit” (and no thanks to yours truly), the 2015-16 squad pasted an outmatched Eagles team 61-43 at its newer home gym inside Henderson Middle School. Indeed, despite the disparate winning margins, the Mustangs were able to do it with a tried-and-true formula. No surprise, considering the familiar face roaming the sideline.
Reflecting on the success of Coach Chris Capannola as his varsity team enters its fourth Virginia Final Four under his tenure, my 2001 team’s success was long in the making, having not been to the state tournament since the 1950s.
Since then, the 2011 and 2012 teams tread the same path to the Final Four, and now comes the most historic accomplishment of all, a still undefeated, 29-0 version before my eyes. (And that’s with Capannola missing half a dozen seasons, having moved out of state to coach another group of high school students).
Certainly talent had something to do with this consistent success. But even more critical was a style and a passion that Coach Cap’s teams shared.
Most apparent to me is his emphasis on team. “No egos,” as Coach would put it. This year’s squad is well-rounded, getting contributions from any number of players each game. My senior season was slightly different, as our star player carried the offensive load on most nights. But that distinction was not the result of a change in creed.
Coach Cap has always emphasized that it takes all five players on the floor to win, and has depended on the contributions of both starters and reserves to achieve team goals. You run the offense, you share the ball, you find the player with the best look at the bucket, no matter who it is.
The emphasis on team is even more pronounced on defense, where Cap frequently goes zone. Zone only works if everyone knows their role. Subtle details, like whether to force middle or baseline from penetration on the corner, make or break a zone defense. Coach may go box-and-one on you or man-to-man from time to time, and he still works his tail off during practice to review those scenarios, prepare his players, and ensure everyone understands where they have to be. As someone who never had much of a mid- or long-range jump shot, defense was the place to make my mark, and Cap taught his concepts better than anyone.
In addition to the strategic component of defense, there is a commitment to effort above all. This is an overarching philosophy. Cap expects you to play hard not some of the time, not most of the time, but for all four quarters, and beyond if necessary. In the pandemonium of a tough game, the one thing you can control is your consistent effort on the court: not which shots fall or which fouls get called, but your tenacity in guarding your opponent and running your system.
Cap mentions it constantly, and he gets it from his players. Not just because you won’t play if you aren’t giving it your all (and you won’t), but because he genuinely cares about his guys and expects them to control their energy level and commitment.
I can’t speak for this year’s team, but I can certainly remember the extent to which conditioning played into our success back in 2001. If the current bunch are like we were then, they’re ready to run an opponent into the ground on a nightly basis. I can’t count the number of times we were able to keep a game close into the second half, only to blow it open in the final frame because our legs were there and theirs weren’t.
While we should be celebrating the impressive achievements of this current incarnation of the GM Boys varsity basketball team, and rooting for them in the state semi-finals and hopefully finals this weekend, we should also remember the constant in this successful equation. Coach Cap has engrained a passion in dedication in these student-athletes that is both admirable and unique.
Nathan Hamme is a 2001 graduate of George Mason High School and was a member of the Mustangs’ 2001 Final Four basketball team.