By Matthew Yoder
Chincoteague had been trending in this direction. Spirited practices, and consecutive close losses against Arcadia and Northampton ignited the team’s optimism, led to a win maybe only Ponies’ players and coaches could anticipate. Maybe, but by the reactions of some players it’s conceivable they stunned even themselves in their defeat of Nandua at home last Thursday night, 72-62.
As the buzzer sounded, Ayden Leonard’s enthusiasm merged with the roar of Chincoteague’s fans. Leonard was all smiles assessing his team’s growth.
“We have been better lately, and this is the first time we’ve beaten them in a long time,” Leonard said.
How did they get there? They played four quarters of basketball, with players stepping up individually at different points of the game, blending to a true all-around team effort.
Brandon Bundick paced the first quarter for the Ponies, making clutch shots from behind the arc, and Leonard established a commanding presence in the paint.
The quarter unfolded fast and clean, with few stoppages of play, and though the Warriors displayed good passing skills, head coach Trelle Warner lamented the fact that they appeared stationary. “Move around,” Warner instructed. Chincoteague remained patient, building an early 1-point advantage.
Nandua started the second quarter playing inspired basketball, much more to its potential. AhkTavius Harmon opened with an athletic, scooping layup, then Gerald Pitt spotted Malik Battle for an open 3. Tremere Summerville stole a pass and helped his cause with a short jumper. The flurry of points prompted a Chincoteague timeout. Out of the timeout the Warriors were not slowed. Pitt put back an offensive board, then stole a pass on the ensuing Chincoteague possession. Only an intentional foul impeded his path to an easy dunk. He made both free throws, and Summerville scored on a foul line jumper out of the Warriors’ extra possession.
The momentum shift was real, but the Ponies responded with an answer, and Leonard served as the catalyst. Leonard found Camron Davis for an easy layup, then was assisted by Landon King for a bucket of his own, and became an unstoppable force rebounding the basketball. Leonard set up shop in the low block and scored at will. Leonard notched 14 points in the first half, helping the Ponies climb back to within striking distance. Still, following an off-balance floater from Battle, Nandua stepped into halftime with a 5-point lead.
If Leonard’s play defined the second quarter for the Ponies, Trent Clark would be the next Pony to step up and push the issue. Clark drove aggressively. Whether from screens set by Leonard, or with sheer disregard for defenders, Clark either made heavily contested layups or got himself to the free-throw line time and again.
Nandua was continuing to distribute the ball well, but failed to convert on good looks. Late in the third, when Clark made another great drive for a layup, and converted the 3-point play, Chincoteague had made its way back to the lead. That lead was traded with regularity, but the Ponies made it theirs headed into the fourth quarter after a buzzer-beating baseline jumper from Luke Pride.
The teams opened strong in the fourth, with Clark and Leonard pacing the Ponies, and Summerville scoring in bunches for the Warriors. The lead, again, changed hands a number of times, and with four minutes to go the teams were deadlocked at 56.
TJ Pitts had been absent in the game for a time, with slight foul trouble. Chincoteague coach Timmy Johnson had taken him out of the game earlier, but told Pitts, “We need your offense.” Pitts had largely been quiet much of the game, but accentuated the finish with his play. If players like Bundick, Leonard, Clark, and King got the Ponies to this point, Pitts helped carry them over the top.
Pitts stepped into a 3 off a good look from Bundick, and though Nandua would respond, Pitts again hit another 3 just over a minute later, driving the Ponies lead to 4 and forcing a Warrior timeout. Chincoteague played tight and smart from there. A pair of layups from Clark stretched the lead, and the Ponies made their foul shots down the stretch. The victory was sealed, the celebration was sweet, and to a man it all came from hard work.
Johnson praised individual efforts and the collective spirit alike.
“We just played together, first we fed Ayden, then they adjusted and we worked the guards, they executed the game plan perfectly,” Johnson said.
On seeing the need to settle Pitts for the stretch, Johnson also commented,
“He’s a smart player, a firecracker, he can score at will.”
Warner also praised Chincoteague’s tenacity.
“It hurts, but they have to want it, they wanted it more,” Warner said.
Warner discussed the mistakes that plagued his team’s chances.
“Rebounding killed us, we have to be more aggressive, we’ve got to slide on defense, you play defense like this and you’ll keep losing,” said Warner.
Though close games haven’t always gone their way this season, the Ponies have still become accustomed to the situational basketball of tight finishes.
“We’ve been working hard all season,” said Clark.
“It’s taken a lot of working together, our defense is stepping up and we’re loud in practice,” Bundick said.
Leonard led the Ponies with 24 points, followed in double digits by Clark with 19, Bundick with 11 and Pitts with 10, all in the second half.
Summerville matched Leonard’s 24 and was aided in double figures by Pitt with 16 and Battle with 10.
The Ponies bundled their dramatic win against Nandua with a grind-out 46-36 victory against Holly Grove four nights later. It was senior night, and Clark, Davis, Bundick, and Brendan Lafayette were all honored for their contributions to the team and offered spectators a glimpse into their future plans.
Johnson rewarded his seniors by inserting them all into the starting lineup for both halfs, and they made the most of their final time playing in the Pony Pen. Davis made a pair of difficult, low scooping layups in heavy traffic, and assisted Pitts for a 3-pointer, all in the first quarter.
Bundick made a 3-pointer late in the second quarter of a tight game to help secure a 1 point lead for his team headed into halftime.
The Ponies appeared to wear the Eagles down significantly in the third quarter, with Bundick, Davis, and Clark all leading the way. Clark made a pair of critical layups late in the quarter to extend the lead to 9.
From there, the Ponies hung on amidst a slight surge led by the Eagles’ Zach Chaffins, who finished with a game-high 17 points. Despite Chaffin’s urgency to bridge the divide for the Eagles, King responded with a pair of pivotal layups to ensure the win for Chincoteague.
Clark was the only Pony to notch double figures with 15, but Chincoteague’s victory would not have been possible without crucial efforts from a deep bench.