RICHMOND — Louisa County boys basketball coach Robert Shelton and assistant Andre Quarles were in uniform the last time the Lions played for a state championship in 1994.
Twenty-five years later, the duo will represent Louisa once again in Thursday’s VHSL Class 4 state championship game against George Washington-Danville, this time as the brain trust for a Lions’ team searching for the program’s first state title.
“These kids, they’ve got the heart and desire to be good and succeed,” Shelton said. “I think because of the competition level that they’ve been brought up in and exposed to as a young age, these guys remain focused.”
Chris Shelton, Xavien Hunter, Jarett Hunter and Isaac Haywood anchor a Lions squad that’s built on athleticism, toughness and resolve.
Shelton, the Region 4B Player of the Year, has averaged more than 20 points a game in the postseason for the Lions and is the heartbeat of the team. The senior wing poured in 31 points in the state quarterfinals against Churchland and added 18 more in Tuesday’s state semifinal win over Lake Taylor.
Xavien “Buck” Hunter is a straight gamer on the perimeter. The junior shooting guard poured in a team-high 24 points in the state semifinals and can beat defenders off the dribble or from behind the arc.
Jarett Hunter sets the tone for the team at both ends of the floor. The 5-foot-11 junior point guard is a bona fide floor general that can score and set up teammates for easy buckets. He’s also a lockdown defender.
“They’ve been our backbone,” Robert Shelton said. “Those are tough kids. Teams come out and underestimate them sometimes, but they are the front line of our defense. They play off each other, they play well together, and they push each other.”
Haywood is a steady force inside on both ends of the floor for the Lions. The 6-foot-4 junior is a machine on the offensive and defensive glass, as well as a shot blocker along with senior forward Mark Carter. Shylek Washington, Mahlik Munnerlyn and Reggie Cosby have been consistent contributors off the bench.
Louisa County (26-4) has won eight straight games and is comfortable competing in any style of game, including playing catch up, like it did Tuesday night against Lake Taylor.
“They never think they’re out of it and I think that’s what sets this team apart, this team comes together,” Shelton said. “In adversity, this team sticks together and it’s fun to watch. When they get focused and their minds set, they play off one another.”
The Lions face another tough task in Thursday’s state championship game against George Washington-Danville (26-2). The Eagles avenged an earlier loss to Jefferson Forest in the regional final Tuesday night to secure the program’s eighth state final appearance.
Coach Jermaine Parker’s team is senior-laden, led by Piedmont District Player of the Year Shunta Wilson. The 6-foot-4 guard is a pure scorer that can fill it up from behind the arc or can finish at the rim. Wilson, who holds an offer from Bluefield College, scored 16 points in the state semifinal win against Jefferson Forest.
Carlos Poole and Ny’Reek Wheeler also are catalysts for the Eagles. Poole, a football signee at Old Dominion University, is 6-foot-4 and has great quickness. Wheeler, a 6-foot-7 post, is a force on the boards and owns an offer from Bluefield.
Capone Barley is another offensive threat for the Eagles. The junior shooting guard poured in a season-high 34 points in an overtime victory over Riverside in the state quarterfinals. He has received interest from several mid-major Division I basketball programs.
Point guard Wesley Graves and backcourt mate Jalen Franklin, both football players, have a lot of speed and like to get up and down the floor.
“I’ve never seen a GW team that hasn’t been athletic,” Shelton said. “They’ve got good overall team play. They are long and aggressive, and they want to turn you over. We need to stick with what we do.”
GW-Danville averaged 80 points a game during district play this season. Their lone losses came to Martinsville in December and Jefferson Forest in the regional finals. Two years ago, this group went 24-0 as junior varsity players.
Shelton said GW-Danville is similar to teams such as Albemarle and Lake Taylor.
“The thing I’ve been impressed with is some of the big games they’ve won,” Shelton said. “That’s a team that’s won 20-plus game and when their main guys struggle at times, they have other guys step up and make plays.”
Louisa County lost to Salem 67-59 in its lone state championship game appearance, nearly a decade before most of Shelton’s players were even born. The Lions coach tries to not get caught up in all the hype of playing on the big stage of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Stuart C. Siegel Center.
“We have a few guys that have played for [a state championship] in football and that have been in that moment,” Shelton said. “The one thing that myself and Coach Quarles preach is to treat it as another game. Don’t do anything you normally don’t do.”
Shelton heeds the advice of one of his great friends in moments like this.
“There’s only one team that wins their last game and you want to be it,” Shelton said. “Prepare for it. Our athletic director, George Stanley, has played in a couple of state championships and he talks to the kids about enjoying it and seizing it.”
Shelton said Thursday’s game will come down to fundamentals.
“The three keys are rebounding, taking care of the basketball and just playing together,” he said. “Our motto has been those three things all year. Shot are going to fall, or not going to fall, but if you play together you give yourself a chance.”
Xavien Hunter agreed.
“This game against GW will be a dog fight,” he said. “We know we have to do the little things right and have great intensity.”
The junior guard said his team is excited to have this opportunity.
“To be the second team in school history to do this means a lot,” Hunter said. “We have a very talented team, but we can’t let that distract us. We have a job to do.”