But this wonky winter, filled with cancellations, coronavirus protocols and ubiquitous masks, had prepared the Wildcats for the unexpected. They responded to Potomac’s best punch with poise, scoring eight straight points on their way to a 63-49 victory.
“We told our guys to lean on each other,” Coach Kevin Harris said. “We knew a run was coming; we just had to withstand it.”
The setting for Saturday’s game was surreal in its simplicity. The state championship game is often part of a days-long festival of hoops, usually held at a college arena in front of large contingents of fans. But this season the pandemic handed the Wildcats an intimate home game, played in front of a dozen parents from each school and a few media members.
A few days earlier, Centreville senior forward Avery Ford said it felt as if his team was playing for two championships this season. The Wildcats (14-2) made it to last year’s title game, but the contest was canceled because of virus concerns early in the pandemic. They were officially named co-champions with South County, but that honor only meant their Northern Virginia supremacy could be called into question.
“It was just a letdown,” senior guard Paul McClain said. “We worked so hard in that postseason, leading all the way up to [the championship game], and it got taken from us. We came into this year knowing we had to get back to this point.”
Wildcats senior guard Chris Kuzemka missed last season with an ACL injury, but he still remembers the meeting when the team found out there would be no championship game. There were plenty of tears, especially from that year’s seniors. Not long after the meeting broke up, he sent them a text.
“I told them we were going to go back-to-back,” Kuzemka said, “that we were going to finish the job off, that we would validate everything for them.”
Kuzemka led the Wildcats with 21 points. He was one of four senior starters for Centreville, and that experience showed Saturday as Potomac threatened.
After playing most of the game together, Ford, Kuzemka, McClain and senior guard Reece Schirmer were replaced by their young backups. As they headed to the bench for water and hugs, they were met with a surprisingly loud ovation from the sparse crowd.
“This team is a whole bunch of dogs — that’s the best way to describe it,” McClain said. “We’re not the biggest team, and we’re not the strongest team, but we just come together and fight.”