Photo courtesy of Ben Shot It/Ben Berry
By David Cordova
Throughout the years, there has been one school that has been consistently dominant year after year after year. Every time the national rankings are there, they are always on it. And they also have numerous players going to college every year, especially those going on to Division I schools.
The school in question is Oak Hill Academy, which is located in the rural town of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. The co-ed private Baptist institution, which started in 1878, is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains between Virginia and North Carolina. It holds students from eighth-grade to twelfth grade and has an enrollment of just 150 students, of which 98% are students who stay in dormitories on campus.
In this great academic haven lies a powerful national basketball powerhouse. Since 1978, Oak Hill has sent more than 100 players to Division I colleges and also, 27 Warriors have made it to the NBA.
The legacy of the program has been built by one person, longtime head coach, Steve Smith, who has been running the program since 1985. He has well over 1,000 wins, is a four-time USA Today National Coach of the Year and has had over 28 McDonald’s All-Americans.
Pros that have come through the school are Rod Stickland, Ron Mercer, Stephen Jackson, Jeff McInnis, Josh Smith, Jerry Stackhouse, Mike Beasley (New York Knicks), Rajon Rondo (New Orleans Pelicans) and Carmelo Anthony (Oklahoma City Thunder).
This season, the Oak Hill Warriors had an amazing season, at 44-2, traveling to places such as Kentucky, Arizona, Dallas, Portland, Tennessee, Missouri and the birthplace of basketball, Springfield, Massachusetts.
“Our first game is the first weekend of October, so we start a little earlier, we get about eight or nine games in before Thanksgiving, most teams haven’t started yet. So, after that, it kind of slows down, but we’ve done a lot of traveling, we play a lot of big games. We played in the Chick-Fil-A, we played in the Les Schwab, the Bass Pro [Tournament of Champions], so I think that helps us, but when you get down to this point here, it’s one and your done, so you’ve got to play well, but I think that experience helped us so far. We play the best schedule. I try to challenge our guys every year. That’s what my guys want, that’s why they come to Oak Hill and they want to play against the best players, and I want to coach against the best coaches, so our team is going to play against the best teams.” said Smith about the strong schedule.
This year’s team had seven seniors, including 6-foot-4 senior guard Will Richardson (committed to Oregon), 6-foot-5 forward Keyontae Johnson (committed to Florida), 6-foot-7 forward Keldon Johnson (committed to Kentucky) and 6-foot-10 center David McCormack (who is committed to Kansas). There are also underclassmen such as 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Josh Hemmings, who holds five Division I offers. Then there is 6-foot sophomore guard Evan Johnson and 6-foot-8 junior, who recently gained offers from Appalachian State and Ole Miss.
A great team like Oak Hill gets a lot of privileges and a lot of perks, including sneakers as part of their deal with Brand Jordan, a division of Nike. A lot of the sneakers that many of the Warriors wore are exclusive sneakers that the players get before they hit retail stores across the country.
When asked about the sneakers, Keldon Johnson replied, “I mean, they’re still the same, I’m trying to rack up with my shoes, ’cause when I go to Florida, I know I’m going to get more.”
Richardson added about Oak Hill: “It’s kind of cool, going from like a regular public high school, to this year, where they give you everything, from Gatorade, to shoes, to clothes, so it’s a great experience, and I’m thankful for it.”
In the quarterfinals of the GEICO Nationals in New York City last Thursday, Oak Hill played against Garfield, a powerhouse team from Seattle, and dominated from start to finish, winning 75-53. In that game, Keyontae Johnson scored 19 points and added nine rebounds and six assists. Richardson added 17 points and five assists. McCormack had a big game with 15 points and 10 assists.
The next game, the semifinals would pit the Warriors against a team that they previously played earlier in the season, the University School from West Palm Beach, Florida, whom they defeated by thirteen, 82-69 at the Hoophall Classic on January 15th.
Throughout most of the game, the Warriors were out of sync, as the Sharks took a 36-28 lead into halftime. Oak Hill would try and get close in the second half, but the University School would not relinquish their lead, and would end the Warriors’ season, 80-65.
And just like that, the Warriors’ amazing season was over.
“They hurt us on the glass in the second half, with second shots,” said Smith about the season-ending loss. “We had a lot of defensive breakdowns that we don’t normally have, I don’t know why. We were just a little out of it.”
The Warriors struggled mightily in that game from three-point range, shooting 23.5% throughout the game. However, they shot a better percentage than their counterparts from the free-throw line and held them to 10% from three-point range. But it still would not be enough to hold down the Sharks’ trio of highly-recruited players in junior center Vernon Carey, Jr., sophomore guard Scottie Barnes and senior guard and West Virginia commit Trey Doomes.
For the seven seniors, their high school careers have now come to a close. When asked what they would miss about being at Oak Hill and playing for Coach Smith, Keyontae Johnson replied, “I’m going to miss the team chemistry, we had a great bond and with Coach Smith, getting better. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably wouldn’t be what I am right now. I just boosted up, so I just want to thank Coach Smith for everything he done.”
Richardson added: “Just the whole thing, coming to, like, a big high school, playing great competition every night, playing a good team, whether it’s a big name or a small name, every team we played is a great high school team, so just like preparing us for college, where there’s a great game every night. And then, the season, it was a very long season, so it’s beginning to prepare us for next year. Of course, you want to play in March in college, so that’s what we’re doing now.”
In their high school finale, Richardson scored 23 points and handed out six assists and McCormack, the McDonald’s All-American, had 16 points and 10 rebounds. Keyontae Johnson added 13 points and five rebounds in the loss.
Despite the loss, Coach Smith still felt as if the season was one to be proud of. He replied, “We had a great group this year. Winning 44 games is quite an accomplishment, so we told them they have to be proud of that. It’s hard when you lose your last game like this. We’ve never lost here [GEICO Nationals] in the semis, we’ve gotten beat in the first round or we made it to the finals. We were hoping to keep that [winning] streak going, but it didn’t happen today.”
One thing that can be said is that they are a close-knit family. With the discipline that Coach Smith instills in his players, they grow from boys to young men once they leave Mouth of Wilson for the new adventures of college.
And then, the next year, a newer group of players comes in. Teams like Oak Hill never die, they reload. But what’s most important is the development of these student-athletes, in which they will learn lessons that stay with them for a lifetime, whether on, or off, the court.