Travis Hess, the Langley High boys' basketball coach, was curious as to how his young squad would handle varsity game conditions once the winter hoops season began. The Saxons have been fueled by talented, experienced players in capturing Liberty District crowns the past two years. But after losing all five of last year's starters to graduation last spring, there was naturally some concern on how the Saxons would fare this winter.
Through its first five games, Langley was, in fact, faring pretty well with a 4-1 record.
"We've played OK," said Hess. "Some things I think we can do better. But for a team with little varsity experience, we're doing pretty well. I've been pleasantly surprised. I didn't really know what to expect. We had not really been tested in game experience."
The Saxons, in a game on Tuesday, Dec. 15, opened up their district schedule with a 64-54 win at Fairfax High. Langley received a balanced scoring effort, led by Colin Jones' 22 points. Other top scorers for the winners were 6-foot-6 inch center Austin Kriz (season-high 18 points), Joey Kiffe (11) and David Adams (9).
The game was tied at 16 following the first quarter before Langley outscored the Rebels, 38-22, over the second and third quarters combined, propelling the Saxons to the win.
The victory continued what has been a terrific start to the season for Langley. The team's prior wins had come over Battlefield High (Haymarket), 59-21, Robinson, 63-47, and Westfield, 47-45 in double overtime. The lone loss came in the team's fourth game at Edison, 68-67, on Dec. 11.
The games against Battlefield and Westfield were part of Langley's own Tip-Off Tournament, an early season, four-team tourney in which each team played a couple of games.
Langley's most exciting game of the season thus far was the double overtime home win over Westfield on Dec. 9. The Bulldogs sent the game into overtime with what Hess called a `miraculous' three-point shot at the end of regulation. But the Saxons hung tough and ultimately won in the second five minute OT session.
The game-winning basket came on a three-point shot by Abe Yi, whose trey from the left wing with 16 seconds remaining in the second overtime put Langley ahead for good. Sophomore point guard Austin Vasilliadis made the pass that resulted in Yi's clutch trey.
The Saxons' leading scorers in the hard-fought win were Jones (16 points) and Kiffe (9 points). Yi finished with six points.
The 6-3 Jones, averaging about 17 points per game, was Langley's leading scorer in each of its first five games.
"He shoots the three-point shot very well and he shoots free throws very well," said Hess, of his top scorer. "He's impressed me with how far his game has come, all-around."
Vasilliadis, who scored a season-high 13 points in his team's home win over Robinson, has done an outstanding job in running the Saxons' offense at the point.
"He does a little of everything and has done a nice job handling the ball," said Hess. "He's an athletic kid and plays defense. He does a good job getting us into our offense."
<b>LANGLEY</b> is not particularly young, with three seniors in its starting line-up, but the team lacks varsity experience. Along with losing last year's starting five to graduation, the Saxons also lost their top two bench players to graduation from last year's team. So this year's players are getting their feet wet at a fast and furious pace.
"We're not young in terms of age, but in game experience," said Hess.
Jones and Kiffe (14 points per game average) are leading Langley in scoring. On the defensive end of the floor, Langley has been fairly good. But the Saxons struggled defensively in the one-point, non-district loss at Edison, allowing 68 points.
"They are working hardest on their game defensively," said Hess. "As an inexperienced team, we're trying to play [good] defense. [Poor defensive play] is why we lost to Edison."
Over the last two years, Langley played its best basketball near the end of the season. Two years ago, the Saxons defeated McLean in the district tournament title game. Last year, the Saxons, as the district tournament's No. 3-seed, upset top seeded Woodson in the championship game.
Hess believes this year's team can progress and get better and better. By tournament time, he hopes his squad will be in a position to put together three strong games and perhaps successfully defend its crown.
"Realistically, just about every team in the district could win it this year," said the coach. "One of the things that come with winning and having success is a confidence level in what we're doing. Our kids want to compete for [another] district championship. They've seen us do that the last few years and they want to do it again."
Over the Christmas holidays, Langley will take part in the Westfield Holiday Tournament. The Saxons are scheduled to play their first game there against private school opponent Flint Hill on Monday, Dec. 28.
<b>LANGLEY WAS SCHEDULED</b> to host local rival McLean on Friday night, Dec. 18. Players and fans from both teams always look forward to the cross-town matchup. Whether the contest is played at McLean or at Langley, the gymnasium is filled to capacity and the energy level is sky high.
"In the beginning of the season, that's what the kids can really point to on the schedule," said McLean boys' head coach Kevin Roller, of his team's first of two regular season meetings against the locals from Great Falls. "That's sort of a great way to end the first month of the season."
Roller said he has talked to his team during practices about how to best handle the high decibel crowd noise when his team takes the floor against Langley. It is often difficult for players on both teams to hear and talk with their own teammates because of the loud cheers or jeers.
"We've already talked to them about how we're going to communicate with 1,800 [people in the stands] screaming," said Roller, who said coach Hess always has the Saxons ready to play at a high level of basketball. "It's a game I really look forward to as a coach."
Last season in the first pre-New Year's game between the McLean and Langley boys, the visiting Saxons defeated McLean in a thrilling, double-overtime affair, 50-47.
"When you play McLean, it's going to be a great game every single time," said Hess. "Kevin [Roller] does a great job changing defenses and their offense is very good. It will be a close game. Anything can happen when McLean and Langley play."
As it has turned out the past two years, the two cross-town opponents ended up meeting at the postseason district playoffs. Last year, Langley defeated McLean in a semifinals matchup before going on to upset top seed Woodson in the finals. Two years ago, the Highlanders and Saxons met in the finals with Langley coming out on top.