Each season, Sherman Rivers hears the same question. How will Patriot High School’s boys basketball team overcome graduation losses at the guard position and yet remain a favorite to win the Cedar Run District?
And each season, Rivers gives the same answer. With one eye on the present and the other on the future, Rivers points to player development as the reason for Patriot’s continuity.
Year in year and year out, the plan stays the same. He equips players two to three years in advance once they enter the program. And when they are ready, Rivers elevates one of his up-and-coming guards into a starting position and another into the primary scorer’s role.
The result has produced an all-state guard three straight seasons while keeping Patriot (3-0, 5-0) in a familiar spot: Atop the district where they have captured three straight regular-season titles and won 14 straight against district opponents, including tournament games, going into Wednesday’s matchup against winless Osbourn Park.
Starting with the 2017-18 season, Patriot is 29-5 in district regular-season and tournament play.
“Every year, we’re replacing our backcourt,” said Rivers, who is in his fifth season as Patriot’s head coach. “We try and prepare to have someone take over when they have their chance. No one stays forever. We start grooming early.”
Rivers’ approach began to take hold after the 2017-18 season. With district player of the year Ike Onwuka graduated, Rivers turned to returner Devon Parrish and newcomer Hagen Vandiver. The two helped Patriot to a school-record 23 wins and its first state tournament berth.
After they graduated, Zack Blue and Trey Nelson took over in 2019-20 to lead Patriot to another 20-win season.
For the 2020-21 campaign, someone else needed to complement Nelson after Blue graduated. Welcome Nelson’s long-time friend Chad Watson.
The two allow Patriot to maintain effective guard play essential to dictating tempo on each side of the court.
“They both have a similar skillset and yet are different enough to work well together,” Rivers said.
Nelson, who is shooting 47 percent from the field, averages a team-high 18.4 points a game, while Watson, who is shooting 50 percent from the field, is right behind at 16.2 points. And college coaches are paying attention. Division III Eastern Mennonite has already attended three of Patriot’s first four games checking out both players.
The two were the difference Jan. 8 when the Pioneers defeated John Champe 79-74 in a matchup between the district’s top two programs.
“It was a good test for us to see how we’ve progressed,” Rivers said. “A lot of people thought they would finish ahead of us for whatever reason. People don’t really believe we’re that good.”
Nelson and Watson combined for 41 points against the Knights, including going 20 of 24 from the free-throw line to hold off John Champe down the stretch. Patriot made a run in the third quarter to pull ahead of the Knights, but relied on Nelson and Watson’s free throws to preserve the victory. Nelson is shooting 87 percent from the free-throw line and Watson 75 percent.
“When you have two guards who can shoot it that way, it’s a blessing,” Rivers said.
For all their success, though, this season, they still had to bide their time behind upperclassmen at Patriot before stepping into more prominent roles.
As a sophomore, Nelson rarely played with Vandiver in front of him. Watson played junior varsity as a sophomore and then backed up Blue last season.
Watson, who finished 2019-20 as Patriot’s second-leading scorer, has worked hard to become known as more than a shooter. And his performance against John Champe showed he’s capable of scoring in different ways. Watson constantly took the ball to the basket to draw fouls, something Rivers encourages him to do.
“Sometimes when you are a player like that, you get boxed in,” Rivers said. “There’s this fear that you are only seen as a shooter. That worries him."
One of two returning starters, Nelson has continued to grow as a player. He’s Patriot's top defender, a role he eventually embraced after minimizing it as a sophomore.
Now he’s the focal point for a team that has no intentions of slowing down, even during a season as strange as this one with the pandemic altering schedules and requiring Prince William County players to wear masks when playing. Besides leading the team in scoring, Nelson also averages a team-high 4.8 assists and 3.0 steals per game.
“It’s hard not to play well as a team when you have someone like Trey,” Rivers said.
Still, Rivers is ready for others to move up once Nelson and Watson graduate. Those next in line include 5-11 Dezmond Hopkins, one of two freshmen Rivers kept on the varsity, and 5-10 sophomore Nasir Coleman, who is expected to take over for Nelson at the point next season.
“Guard play is the cornerstone of our program,” Rivers said. “We want to reload instead of rebuild.”