This article by Cody Eliot was posted in the February 24, 2020, edition of the Daily News-Record. The JV Boys Basketball team also clinched a VIC championship earlier the same day (February 22, 2020), defeating North Cross 62-44.
ROANOKE — Don’t look now, but here comes Eastern Mennonite.
And it may be a different version of the Flames than we’ve ever seen before.
Third-seeded Eastern Mennonite — known for its up-and-down style on offense and sharpshooting ability from 3-point range — used a second-straight strong defensive effort to defeat top-seeded Covenant 54-39 in the Virginia Independent Conference boys basketball championship at Roanoke College on Saturday.
“The defense and toughness is what carried us through,” EMHS second-year coach Chad Seibert said. “We were able to dial that up against North Cross and then carry it through to the Covenant game. We had a bigger lineup and some zone stuff that we had been holding and we threw that out there and I think that really helped us.”
The Flames and Eagles split their two regular-season meetings with Covenant star and VIC Player of the Year Jonas Sanker scoring 46 in a meeting in Harrisonburg.
On Saturday, Sanker finished with 13 points and the Eagles finished with just 39 as a team.
“It’s kind of the evolution of our team,” Seibert said. “We’re obviously offensively talented and we focus a lot on that. You take guys from so many places and try to put the defense together and build the habits required. It’s taken all season, but we’re getting better. We’re getting better every day, which I’m most proud of.”
It was the first VIC title for Eastern Mennonite since 1994. That’s something Seibert said he emphasized to his players before the game.
“We talked about it yesterday,” Seibert said. “My pregame speech was brief. We’re talking about the opportunity for us, our kids, our grandkids to walk in there and see that  hanging on a banner. It’ll be there forever. We’ll always be able to look at that and come back to this memory forever. It was very special.”
Chance Church led the Flames (21-8) with 17 points and four assists and Aviwe Mahlong had 15 points. Adam Hatter continued to be a solid all-around point guard with 10 points, six assists and seven rebounds while Nick Jones had six points and 11 boards and Trey Gillenwater chipped in with six points also.
After falling in the VIC semifinals a year ago, the Flames went on to play in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III title game.
Despite that, Seibert said the conference loss was still on their minds.
“First and foremost, we wanted the opportunity to compete for it because we fell short last year,” Seibert said. “We wanted to feel that moment. We felt like once we got there, we’d be prepared. 1994 is a long time ago. None of the kids were alive then and most of my staff wasn’t alive then. It’s not because EMHS didn’t have teams good enough. It’s just that difficult of a task to win the VIC.”
EMHS will receive a first-round bye in the upcoming VISAA Division III tournament as the No. 3 seed. It’ll host the winner of Amelia Academy and Christ Chapel in the quarterfinal round on Wednesday in Harrisonburg.
Now, stocked with a renewed focus on the defensive end and a consistent ability to light it up offensively, the Flames are ready for state play.
“We held some things back a little bit at the end and that’s always a little bit of a risk as a coach,” Seibert said. “You want to peak at the right time. It’s not like there’s a blueprint for that. It comes and goes with each team. We feel good about where we are and what our identity has become and where our focus is right now.”