By Drew Costley
George Mason High School’s varsity boys basketball team beat Manassas Park High School 55-45 in its season opener last Wednesday. The Mustangs (1-0, 1-0) lost all three times they faced the Panthers (0-3, 0-1) last season. But the Panthers lost their entire starting five from a year ago, so the Mustangs were faced a drastically different team.
“We tried to stress to our guys that losing three times in a row to any opponent is unacceptable,” said Head Coach Chris Capannola. “And we really pushed hard to get the kids to buy into the game plan and to jump out ahead and let our pressure wear them down.”
Capannola said his team played well enough to win a game in which both teams made lots of mistakes. “We caused a bunch of turnovers and had 20 steals and that’s great,” Capannola said. “We didn’t convert enough of them into points and had 21 turnovers ourselves, so it was a game of who made fewer mistakes. Luckily, it was us.”
According to Capannola, the key to the Mustangs’ victory was their ability to take advantage of some of the turnovers they caused through pressure defense and turn those Panther mistakes into scoring runs.
Sophomore forward Robert Tartt was the Mustangs’ leading scorer in match with 18 points on 8-16 shooting. He also grabbed 11 rebounds and had seven steals.
“Tartt was outstanding in his varsity debut; he really was the best player on the court for either team,” Capannola said. “He played all 32 minutes. His motor truly never stops.”
Sophomore guard Elliot Mercado scored 13 points in the second half, but was benched in the first half after getting three fouls. Mercado was 4-4 from the free-throw line late in the game to help the Mustangs maintain their lead. Sophomore guard Josh Allen led the team in assists with four and added 10 points to the Mustangs’ scoring tally.
Because of the Virginia High School League’s realignment, the Mustangs are playing against district opponents earlier in the season than they normally would. In recent years, they would start the season by playing a few out-of-district games to warm up for the bulk of their schedule, which consists of Bull Run District match-ups.
The change made starting the season off with a win that much more important to Capannola and his squad. “Any district win is a good one, and one on the road is even more important,” Capannola said.
Capannola said that with a lot of young players on his team, he didn’t know how they would respond to facing a competitive district opponent right out of the gate. Despite his tentativeness, he said the Mustangs had great energy and competed very hard against the Panthers.
“If you have those two things every night, good things usually happen down the road,” Capannola said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’ll get better as the season rolls on and we start to figure things out.”
The Mustangs’ match-up at home against William Monroe High School was rescheduled from Tuesday to Wednesday due to inclement weather; results were not available at press time. They hit the road to face Central High School tonight, and then they play back-to-back home games next Monday and Tuesday against Clarke County and Rappahannock County high schools, respectively.