Wakefield High boys basketball coach Tony Bentley always understood that versatile 6-foot 7-inch Alex Irmer was much more than just another good ball player.
What the personable Warriors head coach wanted to do was convince Irmer, who according to Bentley was content with being "a regular guy" during his junior year (2003-04 season), that he could step his game up to stardom.
Irmer, reluctantly perhaps, began taking heed to his coach's advice as that season went on.
"He just started to believe in himself," said Bentley, of Irmer's junior season. "He was a kid who didn't have a lot of confidence [earlier in his high school career]. He always cared about his teammates and he always wanted to be equal. He wanted to be a regular guy and go through his high school career like that. I loved that about him. [But] we said, `Hey, you're going to be a special player.'"
Irmer, an unselfish player with the ability to score both inside the paint and outside along the perimeter, finally embraced the understanding of what his role needed to be in order for Wakefield to reach the next level.
The following season, Irmer, a senior, stepped up and became a true star — not in the sense of taking all the shots or always being the Warriors' go-to guy, but by realizing there were times during ball games when he needed to take Wakefield under his wings for spells.
The Arlington community will always have a fond heart for those 2004-05 Warriors who took the Northern Region by storm in capturing the region title for the first time since 1990. Wakefield had a number of outstanding players — senior point guard Kenny James, senior shooting guard Nate Idlet, and senior forward Geoff Crawley to name a few. But the Warriors needed Alex to be Alex, and Irmer did just that. On a team of stars, he shone a little brighter. But he did it the right way — by utilizing the teammates around him. For Wakefield, it was all about team.
"Alex was the face of Wakefield for three years," said Bentley, whose team won the region crown by defeating Hayfield in the title game played at George Mason University's Patriot Center to improve their undefeated record to 27-0. "His senior year, he understood how he could share the load and it opened up everything else. He sacrificed his game."
The Warriors' season would ultimately end at the Virginia State AAA semifinals in Richmond with a 68-63 loss to Landsdown. For the season, Wakefield had gone 28-1 overall, garnering both the National District and Northern Region championships while becoming the darlings of the Arlington community. The players had embraced their captivated fans' adoration whole-heartedly.
"It was lots of fun, that's for sure," said Irmer earlier this summer, remembering that `Impossible Dream" season. "It taught me a lot of things as well — about team work."
IRMER GREW UP in Old Town Alexandria. He loved playing ball at the Alexandria Boys and Girls Club or wherever he found other kids who wanted to play pick-up.
"I grew up playing street ball," said Irmer, who will be playing collegiate ball this upcoming school year at St. Mary's College — a Div. 3 Maryland school. "If it wasn't for "street ball", I probably wouldn't be playing ball. I just started picking up the ball [as a young kid] and shooting."
Irmer, who played on AAU teams growing up, said he always found himself playing `street ball' against guys older than himself.
"I played with guys five years older, 10 years older, grown men," he said.
Irmer, even as a kid, had a fierce desire to be able to dunk the basketball. As an 11-year old, he grabbed the rim for the first time. A year or two later, he dunked the ball for the first time.
Irmer stood at 6-foot-5 inches by the time he was a freshmen at Wakefield. The coaching staff at that time, naturally, wanted to make him an inside player.
But when Bentley became head coach of the program the following year, he along with his staff wanted to better utilize Irmer's overall talent.
"We said he's not necessarily a [pivot]," said Bentley.
Wakefield had three outstanding 10th graders that season — Irmer, James, and Crawley — who were part of the starting varsity rotation early on. Bentley believed those three youngsters could be the foundation for the following years' teams. But just as quickly the coach realized he had put a lot of pressure on the 10th graders. So he pulled them out of the starting line-up.
"I felt we put too much pressure on those three guys," Bentley recalled. "They were just sophomores. [So] they got to sit and watch a little bit and things started going for us."
Bentley eventually inserted the trio back into the starting line-up. Irmer earned second-team All-District honors that season.
During that following summer, Wakefield competed in the Sleepy Thompson Summer Basketball League at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria. In the league's annual All-Star game, Irmer tallied 14 points and brought down eight rebounds for the winning `Blue' team stars.
"It's fun," said Irmer, following that night's All-Star game. "Everybody gets to showcase their talent. I didn't care if we won or lost, it was an All-Star game."
The Warriors, with Irmer, James, and Crawley leading the way, continued to blossom the following winter season. Irmer, under the tutelage of Bentley, continued to settle and understand his role better. That season as an 11th grader, Irmer garnered first-team All-District accolades.
THEN IT ALL CAME TOGETHER for both Irmer and the Warriors the following 2004-05 season. Wakefield started the season winning, and it didn't stop. The Warriors, in their final regular season game and in front of a packed gymnasium at Arlington cross-town rival Washington-Lee, defeated the host Generals, 78-60, to improve to 21-0 going into the postseason.
The Warriors continued to roll throughout the district tournament and at the region playoffs where they clinched a spot in the finals versus Hayfield with a 69-54 rout over Westfield at the Patriot Center. In that Final Four game, before a crowd of 7,500, Irmer (22 points, 12 boards) and Crawley (20 and 10) dominated inside the paint in leading the Warriors to the victory. Afterwards, Irmer, on advancing to the finals where the Warriors would face Hayfield, said, "This is the one we've been waiting for. This one we've been working all year to get to."
Wakefield went on to defeat the Hawks, then won their first round state AAA quarterfinals game over Henrico, 63-45. That advanced the Warriors to the semifinals in Richmond. By that time Arlington and all three of the public high schools — Wakefield, Washington-Lee, and Yorktown — had rallied behind the Warriors. Nearly 2,000 fans made the road trip to Virginia Commonwealth's Siegel Center in Richmond, many of them wearing `Wakefield Super Fan' T-shirts.
"They stopped school early so kids could go," recalled Irmer, of that magical trip. "They filled like seven chartered buses of kids. When they got up to 395 [outside of Arlington], they were police escorted all the way to Richmond. That's when we knew [the fandom] was very serious."
While Wakefield lost at the state semis to Landstown and Irmer, who got into foul trouble, was held to 12 points, the season had been a spectacular, breakthrough one for Wakefield.
"Our team wasn't like [any other] basketball team," said Irmer. "We were like buddies and knew what we needed to do. Off the court we were all good friends. I still talk to the guys." Irmer said that Wakefield team of his senior year was an unselfish squad.
"Once we knew we could win every game, we just had the mindset of [winning] a state championship," said Irmer, who averaged 15 points and eight rebounds a game as a senior. "I might not ever play on a team like that again. What was so dangerous about us is that anyone could be `the man' on any night."
Irmer played in two postseason All-Star Games — the Suburban All-Star Game at Patriot Center and the Northern Region vs. Woodbridge All Star game — to conclude his prep school career. He won MVP honors in both showcase contests.
For his career, Irmer tallied 1,249 varsity points, believed to be the most in school history.
"He was someone who they could count on for offensive punch," said Mount Vernon High head coach Alfonso Smith, whose squad saw more than enough of Irmer over a three-year span. "He played with a lot of energy — a team player. During his senior year with the success they had, he was a huge part of it."
Bentley marvels at what Irmer, who was nicknamed, "Sunshine," after the character in "Remember The Titans," brought to the Wakefield program.
"I wouldn't be where I am as a coach without Alex Irmer at Wakefield, that's the honest truth," said Bentley.
Alex Irmer is 60 in a survey of the area's Top 100 Athletes by Connection Newspapers in 2000.