As Lake Taylor’s Daleon Gibson measured a 3-point attempt from the left corner during the Titans’ Class 4 state semifinal matchup with Louisa Tuesday night, Lions’ junior forward Isaac Haywood used his lengthy arms and legs to cover ground in a hurry and swat the effort out of bounds.
Haywood’s running and leaping ability is a direct result of his experience as a state champion triple jumper with the Louisa track and field team.
The Lions overcame a 16-point third-quarter deficit to earn a 74–67 victory over the Titans.
The win sets up a trip to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Siegel Center tonight to take on George Washington-Danville (26–2) with the program’s first-ever state title on the line.
Louisa (26–4) has used multi-sport athletes like Haywood to reach the state championship game for the first time since 1994.
Four of the Lions’ five starters play other sports, as does reserve guard Reggie Cosby.
In an age where high school athletes are increasingly specializing in one sport, the Lions are an outlier and they’ve used it to their advantage.
“I think it’s big for us because our guys are always competing and it’s not just at one sport,” Louisa head coach Robert Shelton said. “So they bring the same competitive vibes from another sport and they take it to the court. I think it’s big in helping us will a game that may be close … Winning breeds winning. I always say our best years are when our other sports are great, too. When you’ve got a group of kids that want to win and want to compete together it usually carries over to everything that they do.”
Research from two studies presented at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons showed that 55 percent of parents want their young athletes to specialize in one sport. According to the study only 13 percent of youth balance more than one sport equally.
The Lions are an exception.
Senior guard Chris Shelton, who holds a Division I scholarship offer to North Carolina A&T, is the only starter who doesn’t play another sport.
Guard Jarett Hunter was a first-team All-Area running back in 2018 after he rushed for 1,505 yards and 25 touchdowns on 236 carries.
Backcourt mate Xavien Hunter played varsity football for the first time last fall and emerged into one of the Lions’ top cornerbacks.
Center Mark Carter (6-foot-6) is a four-year football player who signed a national letter of intent to play wide receiver for U.Va.-Wise.
Haywood leaped 46 feet, 7 inches to capture the state title in the triple jump last month, while Cosby was a starting linebacker for the football team.
Brandon Smith, who is a freshman linebacker at Penn State, was a basketball player before he decided to graduate early and enroll with the Nittany Lions in January.
Louisa football coach Will Patrick said he and Robert Shelton encourage players to participate in other sports.
“We want these boys to compete,” Patrick said. “In playing multiple sports like they do, you can get real technical with their agility, hand-eye coordination and their body control. But I think the biggest impact is these kids are competitive. When they go out there and they have Louisa on their jersey, they are there to compete and win.”
A 2017 study by the National Federation of High School Associations showed that young athletes who specialize in one sport are 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury during the season than those who play multiple sports. Burnout is also a concern in specialization.
Shelton said there is no offseason for the Lions, but it’s rarely centered on one sport. He noted that during the summer, athletes will attend weightlifting and running sessions with the football team in the morning and by night they’re doing agility training with the basketball team.
The Lions are a rarity among Class 3 and 4 schools in the Fredericksburg area. The three teams who shared the Battlefield District regular season basketball title—Caroline, Courtland and James Monroe—have a combined two full-time starters that played other sports (Caroline’s Tre Terrell and Courtland’s Shyheem Lewis both played football). Chancellor had no starters that played another sport.
“I know a lot of players want to work at one sport,” said Xavien Hunter who was pursued by Patrick to play football last fall. “I don’t think they get pushed enough in their community like our community pushes us.”
Jarett Hunter said mental and physical toughness from playing football has helped the Lions on the hardwood.
After being hammered as a ball carrier during the football season, Hunter said he easily keeps his balance, controls the ball better and is less likely feel pain when he’s bumped on the court.
That was apparent against Lake Taylor. The Lions’ physical and mental toughness was on display as they scored 47 second-half points to erase the Titans’ 39–27 halftime advantage and 47–31 third-quarter lead.
Louisa now aims to hang a state title banner in their gymnasium. The last time the Lions were in the title game they fell to Salem, 67–59.
While a win tonight would be cathartic for Robert Shelton, who was a star guard on that team, some of the Lions’ current players hope to ease the pain of a heartbreaking loss to Eastern View in the Region 4B football semifinals last fall. The Cyclones scored on a 57-yard touchdown pass as time expired for a 19-14 victory.
The Lions’ football team also fell to Salem 43–22 in the 2017 state championship game.
“I know what it feels like to lose one,” said Jarett Hunter, who was a sophomore on that team. “This year we want to end it the right way with a win.”