Varina High School (Henrico, VA)
Classification: Class 5, Region B
2017-18 Record: 26-2, Class 5 State Champions
Colleges in Attendance: Virginia State
I got a first look at the Blue Devils’ squad during CNU’s annual Fall Team Camp two weekends ago. They had a stellar tournament run to make it all the way to the championship game. Leaving from that camp, I had a handful of positive takeaways from the talented team, which once again emerged during my open gym visit.
The notion that stands out the most about Varina, other than them coming off of a state championship season, is how they return ALL of the starting lineup from that team. The backcourt guards have just started their sophomore year. Two seniors lead the frontcourt, while Kenard Richardson rounds out the lineup as a junior. Still not regarded as a senior-heavy team, the potential for Varina to continue their winning ways for the next several seasons remains scary. Other surrounding teams in the 804 area most likely will start circling game dates against the Blue Devils as season schedules start releasing. Very rare will one find an entire starting lineup with state championship experience. The confidence stands clear amongst the players; no fear resides in their hearts.
Along with a high amount of confidence, head coach Andrew Lacey has done a great job of making sure his group arrives to the gym every day in the preseason with a focus of getting better. After working so hard to earn a state ring, some high school athletes may see an opportunity to take time off for several days/weeks and coast into the season with a feeling of not having anything left to prove. Lacey’s group of guys definitely do not fall in this category. I quickly deemed them as a bunch of gym rats who absolutely embrace pushing each other to become better day in and day out. The players all get along but definitely make sure no one gets anything easy once they take over the court. Thursday’s open gym mainly consisted of competitive 1v1 drills, both in full and half-court situations. The competitive spirit and impressive defense within each Blue Devil definitely made it fun to watch. I viewed it as the team having the biggest focus on working against contested shots. Lacey’s players have enough talent that improving simple skills do not need much work; now, it’s just a matter of getting used to aggressive defensive play now so that, come season time, it’ll look all too familiar.
A&A (Athletic & Aware)
The Blue Devils’ combination of size, strength, and speed proves as a big reason why they have the potential to dominate as a physically imposing team. Pretty much every player on the roster hold impressive physical traits; it does not come from only 1-2 players. In addition, Varina does not hesitate to showcase these gifts and can really get going when everyone on the floor locks in; something that they consistently do a good job of. I saw this during their play at the CNU camp. The taller players play strong inside and run the floor well with the guards/wings, who possess remarkable quickness and change of pace. However, the team’s collective defensive awareness arguably stands as most impressive; their tenacious style of defense stems from the players’ athletic tools. So, in all, it comes together nicely. It’s satisfying to see how the players don’t focus just on getting dunks or making other highlight plays to show their athleticism. If anything, they seem to be more bent on getting stops before focusing on the other side of the ball.
Who to Watch:
Charles Tart ‘19
Man, I like Tart’s game; he first caught my eye during the CNU camp and then had the best day during my visit to the high school. The senior wing has some of the best versatility in how he rebounds, defends, attacks the basket, and makes shots. Standing at 6’3,” he definitely comes off as a ‘glue guy’ for the Blue Devils. Tart does best in transition by how he uses his body control well to get downhill and determine which play to make. His defense stands out even more; I think he has a chance to become the team’s best perimeter defender. Right now, his handle is solid enough to get down the floor but can improve to create a more reliable ‘separation game.’ He’s a great athlete with long arms and will also need to continue to get in the weight room. Virginia Union and The Apprentice School have both offered.
Kenard Richardson ‘20
One of my six listed standout players from the CNU camp, Richardson has showed steady improvement through his first two years of high school and looks more than ready for a breakout junior season. His confidence and muscular development now stand out greater than ever. The 6’4” wing has always been a strong guy but now arrives at the gym looking more of a college player with his frame. Richardson’s body control also has come along very nicely. He has always had a tendency to take opponents to the rim but now shows a more complete offensive package in creating space and using angles to make difficult shots. As I noted in my writing of him detailing his camp performance, his middle game now makes him a bigger threat. If his three-point shot can continue to get there, he should boost up in the VA 2020 rankings.
Tyrese Jenkins ‘19
Many already know of the decorated season Jenkins had last year as a junior. The 6’6” wing garnered first team All-Metro, VHSL Class 5 state player of the year honors, while averaging 15.2 points, 7.7 rebounds, and three assists per outing. A three-year starter, Jenkins will have fans once again excited to see the senior’s last run in Henrico County. Watching him on the court for the first time, what first stood out was how patient and under-controlled he plays. He’s not the fastest guy in the world but can get to his preferred spots and has a wide array of skills to make shots in different ways. Like Tart, he has a great deal of versatility, which makes him a big threat at his size. Jenkins three-level scoring and finishing with either hand also aids into his all-around game. He currently holds one offer from Penn State. I, along with other folks in the area, am highly curious to see how Jenkins can top off his sensational junior year performance. I’m sure adding a second state title would be the icing on the cake for him.
Jordan Hernandez ‘19
The tallest player on the roster, standing at 6’7,” Hernandez quickly draws attention with his constant motor, probably the best out of the varsity squad. I saw this intangible of his especially fuel up Varina during their first half performances in the CNU camp. Hernandez can become an intimidator around the paint area on both ends. His activity around the rim helps him grab a bunch of offensive stick backs and swat away/contest shots on the defensive side. He really does well in running the floor at his position, where Varina’s quick guards can find him. Right now, he must work on his overall offensive game. Developing a go-to move and improving his footwork will help him take the next step in his scoring. He already has all of the physical tools. Virginia Union has offered.
Anthony “AJ” Williams ‘21
It’s safe to say that Williams returns as Varina’s best shooter. The sophomore had a big freshmen campaign last season in averaging 13.7 ppg and making a total of 70 three-pointers. In addition, he stood as the only freshman to earn a spot on the Class 5 all-state team, placing on the second team. Scoring comes natural for the 6’0” guard; he gets up on his shot and only needs an inch of space to cash it in. Williams also does a nice job of sizing up his defender and finding ways to attack and finish at the rim. On defense, he showed out last year by picking up 2.3 steals each night and continued to show that same defensive IQ in the gym last week. Simply put, he has a great feel for the game on both ends and plays with a lot of poise. Fans saw in Williams when he put up 17 points in the state title game back in March as a freshman; he feels anything but pressure on the big stage. His basketball body, agility, and playing lower with the ball should all be areas of focus moving forward. He already has picked up offers from Hampton, Ole Miss, and Virginia Tech.
Jason Nelson ‘21
Another young back-court guard and efficient shooter on the squad, Nelson has some of the best quickness out of any player that I’ve come across thus far. His burst of speed makes it nearly impossible to stay in front of him once he decides to just go. Nelson’s handle and overall IQ goes beyond his age, which aided into the staff having complete trust in him running the show as the primary point guard last season, only as a freshman. He shoots the ball efficiently and can quickly catch fire in spurts. Moving forward, he’ll have to improve on finishing better and playing stronger with the ball once he makes contact in the lane. He does such a good job at drawing defenders that he must realize they’ll start to key on him whenever he attempts getting to the rim. Drake University, Canisius, Norfolk State, Virginia Union, and Virginia State all have extended offers to the floor general.
Expect the Blue Devils to once again make a deep run in the Class 5 state tournament. Their talent and experience makes them one to be reckon with. Right now, I feel it’s most important that they stay together now up until the conclusion of the season. Teams with a large amount of talent may find some conflict with players butting heads. This definitely isn’t an issue for Varina at the moment but the staff and players just need to keep reiterating the ‘team-first’ philosophy so they can all have the same goal of raising another banner in the school’s gym.
Obviously, the men’s basketball team at Duke University will not be the only Blue Devils near the top of a list in preseason basketball rankings.