Richmond, Va. — After cruising through the Potomac District and capturing their second straight district championship in 2018, the Freedom High School boys basketball team was set to make a deep playoff run with its strong senior core. However, right as the Eagles started building momentum, their championship dreams were stolen from them by a pesky Stone Bridge team that defeated them in the first round of VHSL Region 5C playoffs.
At the time, it seemed as if Freedom had lost its best shot at advancing to the state tournament behind one of the best players in school history, Zyan Collins. Combined with the graduation of key seniors Jeremy Cofield, Cleo Green, and Hunter Oakford, it looked like Freedom would be heading toward a rebuilding year.
For most of the 2018-2019 season, it did seem as if this young Freedom team was in a rebuilding stage. Marked by inconsistency and youth, the Eagles failed to really get on a roll and dropped key district games to Potomac Falls, Rock Ridge, and Tuscarora. It seemed as if the team had hit rock bottom after losing to John Champe by 19 points on February 8, even after defeating the Knights by 27 points earlier in the season.
“[The loss to John Champe] really stung, but we knew all along what we were capable of,” Freedom senior guard Kyle Skinner said. “It came down to us just putting that behind us and taking it one game at a time during the playoffs.”
Fortunately, the Eagles gelled at the right time behind senior leadership from Skinner and senior big man Madden Moore and dominant performances from juniors Lance Johnson, Robbie Kemmerer, and Angelo Easter.
After losing both regular season games to Potomac Falls, the Eagles were able to hand the Panthers their first loss of the season in a Potomac District semifinal. The win gave Freedom some confidence heading into the 2019 VHSL Region 5C tournament, where they defeated Stone Bridge and then Edison to earn a spot in the VHSL 5A State tournament.
A loss to Potomac Falls in the region championship game, knocked Freedom back down, but the Eagles rose up to defeat Halifax County in a state quarterfinal to set up yet another rematch with the Panthers. On March 4, Freedom punched its ticket to the VHSL 5A State championship game with a come-from-behind win over Potomac Falls.
“We just came together as a team and left it all out on the floor for each other,” Kemmerer said. “We knew we could do something special.”
As the VHSL 5A State championship game got under way, the Eagles faced some early adversity inside the Siegel Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, thanks in part to the aggressive full court press by the Maury High School Commodores.
Despite facing some issues offensively in the first quarter – a quarter in which the Commodores jumped out to an 18-6 lead – the Eagles showed their resilience with their persistent attack of the basket and toughness inside the paint. Even with a slight size disadvantage, Freedom showed no fear in driving right into the teeth of the Maury defense.
After the Commodores missed an alley-oop attempt late in the second quarter, the Eagles were able to storm down the court for a layup to beat the buzzer and cut the deficit to eight points heading into halftime.
Coming out the half, Freedom continued its gritty play and was able to close the gap to six points with about six minutes left in the third quarter. Maury, however, responded by abusing their size advantage in the paint and getting easy looks at the basket. By the end of the third quarter, the Commodores’ lead had ballooned to 16 points.
While it would have been easy for the Eagles to accept defeat and pack it in, they continued to play hard and received a big boost off the bench from sharpshooting junior Zach Hoening. Following back-to-back three-pointers from Hoenig and Skinner, the Eagles were able to cut the lead down to 11 with five minutes left in the game.
Despite the Eagles’ tireless effort, however, Maury held on to its 57-49 lead to win the program’s first state title since 1927.
“I told these guys to just believe,” Maury head coach Brandon Plummer said. “We saw some hiccups during the season, but I told them to keep their faith because faith can take you a long way.”
While Freedom may have fallen short of state championship glory, there is no doubt that the team has been one of the greatest success stories out of South Riding in recent memory.
“The state championship is the ultimate goal for every team,” Johnson said. “Words can’t describe the feeling of having that type of opportunity.”