EMS Makes History, Captures VISAA Division III State Championship
When the Flames hosted the VISAA DIII quarter final game at home on March 2, a white-out pack-the-gym contest brought out so much support that the opposing team’s coach told Andrew Gascho, EMS athletic director, he’d never seen a better atmosphere for a high school basketball game. That game launched the Flames to a state championship win, a first in school history. Gascho planned a party and purchased 33 dozen donuts the Tuesday after the game for the whole school K-12, to celebrate the win and school spirit.
The following articles about the Flames historic VISAA DIII state win on March 5, 2022 are by Cody Elliott for the Daily News-Record coverage. EMS parking lot photos by Daniel Lin/DN-R. Game day photos by Andrew Gascho.
More than 30 minutes following the completion of the game, Eastern Mennonite senior point guard Adam Hatter was still seen walking around the court, holding the trophy and taking photos with friends and family with a can’t-miss smile.
The third-seeded Flames never expected to be in this position with a first-year coach, a lack of depth and a young and somewhat inexperienced roster.
But Eastern Mennonite accomplished history Saturday, winning the school’s first-ever state championship in boys basketball with a 64-56 victory over top-seeded Fairfax Christian Academy in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III title game at Virginia State University in Petersburg.
“It’s very special, man,” said Hatter, who finished with 17 points in the win. “It’s almost a whole new group from year’s past and we’ve learned to know each other better throughout the year. At the end, I guess it all just came together.”
In a matchup many expected to be a lopsided result in favor of the Cardinals, the Flames used their tenacious defensive effort and a disciplined approach on the offensive end to jump out to an early lead and never gave it up.
“We knew how good they were, but we really started to believe at that point,” said senior guard Trey Gillenwater, who added 17 points in the victory. “At that point, we felt like it was a really winnable game. We were in control.”
For a team in its third state championship in four seasons, the experience paid off as Eastern Mennonite showed poise and confidence down the stretch.
By the time the game’s final buzzer sounded, a raucous celebration ensued.
“It’s a whole different feeling as a coach,” said Eastern Mennonite first-year coach Eli Crawford, who won two Virginia High School League state crowns as a former standout player at R.E. Lee in Staunton in the early 2000s. “As a player, I’m on the court and can control a whole lot of different things. As a coach, you’re on the sideline and watching. It’s a different feeling, but it feels so great. These guys have worked hard from the start. They’ve earned this. I’m so proud.”
The Flames fell in 2019 and 2020 in the VISAA Division III state championship. Last year, in a condensed season under COVID-19 guidelines, EMS came up short in the semifinal round.
On Saturday, Eastern Mennonite completed a long-term goal that former coach Chad Seibert, with Crawford as his lead assistant, set just three years ago.
“Winning a state championship alone is an amazing feeling,” Gillenwater said. “But for us to have all the injuries this year, have all the freshmen on our team, have Coach Seibert leave last year and then having to go through such a difficult playoff schedule, it just makes it even better. No one thought we’d be able to do this. We didn’t even know if we’d do this. That’s what makes it all sweeter.”
Crawford, who does not work in the EMS school system and has taken pride in being a hard worker since his playing days with the Leemen and at Eastern Mennonite University, took pride this season in continuing the tradition Seibert started while instilling a toughness that makes him unique as a coach.
The Flames (17-10) fought through an up-and-down regular season that even saw Crawford himself sidelined for multiple games with illness and was filled with significant player injuries to play their best basketball late.
The result was a four-game winning streak, capped with a state championship.
“These guys feed off of what I do,” Crawford said. “They see me come into practice with my work pants on, my work boots on. They see that, if he’s putting himself out here and putting that work in after working 10 or 12 hours, we can give him the same thing. These guys are blue-collar. They’re a product of me. It’s not to sound cocky or anything. They just work hard like that.”
For the seniors, Gillenwater, Hatter and Schuyler Harmison, the moment was a bit surreal as they watched their career with the Flames end on a high note.
“It definitely made it feel like it was all worth it,” said Gillenwater, who transferred to Eastern Mennonite after starring as a sophomore two-sport standout at Turner Ashby in 2019. “A lot of people were questioning and making comments when I went to Eastern Mennonite, but that’s the reason why. There’s been a lot of ups and downs over the years, but it was all worth it for that.”
Hatter ends his career with 108 games played — the most in program history.
After coming up short multiple times before, the senior point guard and leader for the Flames finally got to hold the winning trophy in his hand Saturday.
And as he walked around the arena on the campus of VSU, he wasn’t giving it up.
“It’s so special,” Hatter said. “A lot of my family comes to the games. They know I’ve been at this for five years now and there’s just nothing like it. I can’t even describe it.”
ELLIOTT: Persistence Paid Off For Gillenwater, Hatter
Year after year, Adam Hatter stood in the hallway outside of a locker room inside Virginia State University in Petersburg and vowed that he’d be back.
Most years, the Eastern Mennonite senior point guard got there. He had played in two previous state championship games at VSU and fell in the semifinal round of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III boys basketball tournament a year ago during a condensed, COVID-impacted season.
So as the clock winded down to zero Saturday and Hatter joined fellow senior Trey Gillenwater for an emphatic celebratory hug, it was a moment of rejoice.
Both Hatter and Gillenwater have been with this program through its best years.
Losses in the state title game in 2019 and 2020 were enough to make the passionate fanbase proud. Even a semifinal appearance a year ago was nothing to frown upon for a program that’s suddenly one of the best in Division III.
But another setback in the championship on Saturday would have been a tough pill to swallow for someone like Hatter, who has played in 108 games with EMS, or for Gillenwater, who transferred to the school with this particular goal in mind.
A win, though? Man, that just seems like a movie-like ending and the perfect fit.
And it sure was.
Gillenwater developed into the team’s primary scorer this season after sitting behind talented players such as Chance Church, Aviwe Mahlong and others.
And Hatter? Well, his importance goes beyond the stat sheet with his late-game poise, locker room leadership and impressive range from beyond the arc.
The hours that duo spent in the EMS gym over the past four years is hard to match. Late-night shooting sessions, early-morning workouts, endless amounts of drills and film sessions kept these two dedicated to one common goal.
On Saturday, Gillenwater and Hatter were able to accomplish just that.
Winning a state championship, in any sport and at any level, is difficult.
It’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted and the Flames know that.
That’s why it was easy to brush it off each year when Hatter and his Eastern Mennonite teammates promised that, eventually, they’d get a ring of their own.
But on Saturday, the Flames put their money where their mouth is.
And, in many ways, it seems like the appropriate end for two of the program’s most storied players.