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March 27, 2013

Q&A w/Henrico's Vance Harmon - Pt. 2

The Henrico Warriors' basketball team had a history making season in 2012-13, completing a 30-2 record with a commanding 72-48 victory over John Marshall in the first ever All-Central Region Group AAA State Championship [see Analysis here]. It marked the school's first ever state title in the sport.

VirginiaPreps.com recently caught up with Henrico's Head Basketball Coach, Vance Harmon, for an in-depth Question & Answer session.

Hired on April 24, 2003 as the seventh Head Basketball Coach in Henrico's history, Harmon has gone 212-65 in ten seasons at the helm of the Warriors.

Among the topics covered with Coach Harmon were his coaching career, the growth of Henrico's basketball program, their title winning season and a closer look at some of the key performers from this past year.

See Part I of the Q&A with Coach Harmon Here

Check out Part II of this three part series below . . .

Q & A with Henrico Head Basketball Coach Vance Harmon (Part II):

VaPreps: Take me back to the Group AAA State Tournament Semis in 2012 after you lost to the eventual Champs in Hampton. You saw some integral parts in Evan Thorpe (CNU) and Jay Allen graduate from that team. What did you tell the individuals that were returning?

Harmon: "After we lost to Hampton in the State Semis last year, the reality was it put the guys in the program to a larger extent in a place that none of the players had been. They saw a lot of what went into getting to that level, and then was there motivation from having gotten there. They realized it wasn't about celebrating what we had done, it was stop, let's re-focus on what it took to get there, and then it's almost like the 10% rule kicks in where you've got to do what you did previously, plus a chunk more of extra work because it takes more work than that to get back to something bigger than what you had before.

"It was putting the talk aside and letting the actions speak. It was time to getting back to lifting 3-4 days a week, and if you weren't playing together multiple days a week you were working on your game 5-6 days a week. They recognized what the prize was that they wanted, and they went after it. I commend that group of seniors that we had to getting after it, leading and putting their money where their mouth was."

Was there a specific moment or point in time where you and your staff knew you guys had what it took to go win a state title? If so, when was that and explain what made you feel that way?

Harmon: "I guess with the pessimist in me, the idea of a state title was never really in my mind one time during the season until maybe late in the John Marshall game. I think that message was portrayed to the kids or relayed to the kids that we've just got to take each game for what it's worth; that's the opportunity to either get better during the regular season and put ourselves in a more desirable position to playing home games in the postseason, getting a regular season title and perhaps a better matchup, but then in the postseason it became let's focus on our opponent, try to handle them the best that we can, and survive and advance.

"If there was a game that I had to pinpoint that told me maybe this group had that 'it' factor, there were a couple regular season games that I think stand out to me. One came in the early part of the season in the Times-Dispatch Tournament against a pesky Trinity team that ended up winning the Prep League Championship. We got matched up with them in the first round, it was a great basketball game by all accounts, back and forth, they had the advantage coming down the stretch and Jordon Talley stepped up and took a huge charge late in the game.

"That got us the ball back, and then with under 10 seconds left, just as calm, cool and collective as we could be, we didn't call a time-out, went to one of the scenarios we talk about in practice, get the ball into Tim Jones, he dribbles down the court, spots the first open man, which happens to be our 6-5 center Marvin Smith flaring out to take a three-pointer, which he hadn't done all game, and right in rhythm he knocks it out.

"That told me right then to win in that hostile environment and in those circumstances that it was pretty big. The other one was in our own Holiday Hoops Tournament when Potomac comes down. They've got a very good ball club, and even towards the end of the season I wasn't going to be at all shocked to see them make a deep run in the State Tournament. Heck, I thought they had the tools to win a State Championship.

"I knew playing them was going to be a daunting task. We came out, they battled us tough back-and-forth, and the third quarter was just huge for us all year. We put a run on in that quarter, stretched our lead out to 6-8 points and kind of held on. We didn't put a ton of preparation into them and basically told the guys we would treat it as a normal regular season game because for all purposes that's what it was. But we gave them a scouting report about an hour or two before the game, did a very brief walk-through, and I thought to be able to adjust to guys they had never seen before, played or knew much about, and to execute that game-plan, that spoke volumes about their focus and ability to win the game."

It didn't seem that your squad had a rotten stretch of play, and if it did it was really short-lived. Did you have a poor performance and how did you address it?

Harmon: "There was a period for about three minutes in the Armstrong game in January where we absolutely spit the bit. I told them that if we don't come out and play our game and up to our expectations, we can lose at any point in time. With losing attention to detail, and in this case our defense was absolutely brutal that game. We allowed 74 points that game, but it wasn't so much the points that we allowed, it was so many different breakdowns in our collective team defense. Our execution on our press break was just awful.

"We had to come back to grips with some things, and I know particularly Chris Brown, who's one of my valuable assistant coaches that handles the defense and was the defensive coordinator for the past couple years. By the way, Chris is one of the top defensive minds in the state of Virginia as far as breaking down an opponent, finding their strengths and weaknesses, and we're such on the same page with not only him, but my other assistants. Those guys include Walt Altwell, who everywhere I've been he's been there with me. He helps out with the bigs. David Hamlin is another assistant that also is in charge with scouting and some post work. We all came together on the same page to get this thing back, and that game showed us what we needed to do get going in the right direction.

"For one, you're coming off New Year's and we were not back in school. We always respected every opponent, but I don't think a lot of us realized that we were very beatable. I don't think we maybe prepared for them mentally 100% as much as we should have done clearly. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not to mention, as we're doing the walk-through the night before, Tim Jones tweaked his knee and it wasn't even contact drills. We were lucky that he played the next night because he's probably at about 70% maybe that night. Besides being concerned for that game, I was concerned it might have a long lasting effect. There were a couple things in that game that weren't in our favor."

You have three terrific seniors that led you who were All-District and All-Region material in Tim Jones, Jordon Talley and Marvin Smith Jr. Break each one down individually, what they meant to your program, and collectively, what made those three so valuable and special?

Harmon: "Each one of them did what they did very well and to the point of they accepted their roles, and I'll start with Tim Jones for example. The process for Tim Jones, who started for me for four years, really started when he was probably about in the fifth grade. Tim's dad, who we call Big Tim and is also named Tim Jones, has been one of my assistants since 2004. Right at that time, Tim pretty much came to every practice, sat in the team room and knew exactly where I was coming from as a coach, and what the expectation was. Like a sponge, he took it all in when he was little in Elementary School through Middle School.

"I had seen what kind of skill he had, but didn't know his work ethic would be like it is. He combined that skill with just a relentless work ethic to put himself in a position to start as a ninth grader. He and I were on the same page so much that where most teams would probably take time-outs in crucial situations I wouldn't purposely because I knew that Tim was right there. When I looked at him and he looked at me, before I would even get out the words he's sitting there knowing what I would do. You can't put a price tag on that kind of leadership and continuity from player to coach.

"The second kid, Jordon Talley, has been with us for three and a half years. He played J.V. for the first part of his freshman year, then we brought him up towards the end of the freshman year and he was just a consummate bulldog on the floor as far as being as nard-nosed and tenacious a defender as you will find. He relished the opportunity to play the other team's best backcourt player, and took pride in it. Whenever we knew we had a guard 6-4 and under, he would be guarding him and took pride in it.

"For all purposes, he was really our second point guard. For 90% of the teams, we would've ben their starting point guard, but he bought into the complete role of 'I'm a player.' That means whether he's point guard or Tim's point guard, it makes no difference. He could shift gears and go into that mode of distributor on offense just as easily as Tim could shift into the mode of being a shooting guard. Whatever the matchup was that we could exploit, they were just interchangeable, and played it beautifully.

"The third kid, Marvin Smith, his story is a little bit more interesting. As a freshman, he came to us from the feeder Middle School and was this tall, gangly, typical young kid. He maybe didn't have quite the skills that he needed to have, and got cut as a freshman on J.V. As it is with a lot of kids, it was a defining moment where you figure out do you work hard to get what you want to get or do you kind of bag it? He worked very hard, turned himself into a nice J.V. player, but then towards the end of his J.V. year, I'll never forget we had a pep rally and he ended up saying something he shouldn't have said that cost him getting suspended for the last week of the season.

"At that point, I'm sitting there going again, here's another moment of 'I can go ahead and quit now and take the high road.' Well, he comes back and starts hanging out more with Tim, Jordon and Booker, and starts buying into that work. He becomes a huge contributor to last year's State Semifinal team, and I guess when I first realized with him that he had that something special, that 'it' factor was when we played in the Finals of the Times-Dispatch Tournament against John Marshall in a game we lost. The bigger the game got, the bigger the setting, the bigger he got. A lot of people talk about playing big in big games, but he actually stepped up and did it, and embraced that role of sixth man for us.

"He bought into it and got it done. Having that success last year, he saw that he wanted to be one of the main guys, worked for it and got it. We had a long talk back in September when school started and he said, 'Coach, I just want to be the best I can be and give myself a chance to do it.' I told him, 'Marvin, you've done exactly what you needed to do. Now, finish this thing off the right way, control what you can control, be a good guy and keep taking care of business.' We always say trust the system; the system will put you in position to succeed. You don't need to do any more or any less; do what we ask of you and it will take care of it, and doggone if it didn't."

VaPreps: There were a few others seniors in Stephen Booker, Brandon Towner and newcomer R.J. Moses that played pivotal parts in your team's success. Describe what they meant to your squad?

Harmon: "As you said with Booker, he was Mr. Utility. He kind of accepted and embraced that role of 'I'm going to defend the other team's best post player.' He took pride in it and was willing to do all the dirty work. He would defend, rebound and the bigger the opponent, the more excited he got. Rajay Bullock of Kecoughtan had a big game against us, but he didn't go off the page like he could've. Rajay could've easily dropped and 20, but he kept him in check and did just enough to keep us around in that game towards the end.

"R.J. Moses is certainly one I have to mention as a key to our success being that sixth man who basically was Smith of last year. When he came in, he was instant offense. Saying instant offense, it sounds like he was one track, but he wasn't. He blended in with the other guys and completely accepted his role of coming in, after two or three minutes of getting that stretch of time was fine coming out, spelled other guys and blended in beautifully.

"Brandon Towner is a kid who's been in our program for four years and is just an unbelievable athlete. For as good of an athlete as he is, he's a better student. Towner's just a jumping-jack with a 34-inch vertical. I know like a lot of kids, he probably in his mind wants to score 10-12 a game, but I remember distinctly having a conversation with him at Team Camp at the University of Richmond where I think we had just lost to Potomac.

"We use times like that to kind of talk about roles of the future and I said, 'Brandon, your role if you choose to accept it, you are Dennis Rodman. Now, you're probably too young to know, who he was or much about his game, but you're the guy who's going to be the hard-nosed defender, the guy that's going to take charges, get loose balls and do all the nitty-gritty, dirty work, and be there for your teammates. You can be one of those valuable guys in the state at what you do or you can be just another guy on a team.' He embraced it, and it's all the guys for that matter. I couldn't ask for more than what they did. Each one of them did what they did extremely well."

While the senior leadership of the 2012-13 squad has been well-documented, the contributions of the bench and a couple underclassmen, most notably freshman De'Monte Buckingham and Ryan Pearson, made it a well-rounded, balanced attack so dangerous and difficult to defend. Did you sense that as well? Also, what's the message to returnees like Buckingham and Pearson?

Harmon: "That's been typical of this team, and it's also been typical of the teams the past few years. Our best teams have unquestionably had guys that provided that balance. We've had about six guys average from eight to 15 points per game. Those have really been our best teams. On the teams where we've had a guy put up around 20 points per game, it was great for him because he probably won the top player in the district, but we didn't have the best teams.

"This team embodied that whole concept of knowing its role. Take Buckingham for instance. That kid accepted his role of being an understudy, watching and learning, but also being a very aggressive and attacking player. He knew it was never the fact that he was taking a backseat, it was just he was going to learn and see how it was done. That's a very mature thing to do and not just seek out all the shots or trying to hurry up and 'get yours' would be a better way of saying it these days. He just blended in completely.

"Speaking of Pearson, he's another kid who at this point is a younger R.J. Moses where he's a specialist. He came in and was a zone buster, and as the year went on, his defense picked up more and more. I'd be remised if I didn't mention that Pearson has a 4.4 GPA, so these are some intelligent kids that bought into what they had to do. When the season ended, I sat down with Pearson and Buckingham and told them 'Congratulations guys, you've had a magnificent year, but the off-season starts tomorrow and you guys are our co-captains for next year. You guys are going to set the tone and raise the bar or keep the bar for the rest of the kids. All the things that you saw this year, go put your signature on it now.'

"We have a tradition in our program where if you're the youngest one on the team, you're carrying the equipment to the game on the bus, you're responsible for it, and then after the game is over, you are carrying all the dirty laundry and equipment back on the bus. We've always done it my ten years as kind of a means of initiation or whatever you want to call it, but it's just part of the responsibility of being the young guy, and the idea being those sweaty socks and shirts are symbolic of the torch is getting ready to be passed to you. That torch is now theirs and they know what's expected.

"We try to identify our players' skill-sets as early as possible. Not keep them in a box necessarily, but from what we've seen we think they can do, we try to fit them into our system. Again, a lot accept it, some do, some don't, and I think that enables you to become the kind of team you need to become if they do accept things."

*** Be sure to check back later in the week for Part III of our One-on-One Conversation with Coach Harmon! ***

Matthew Hatfield serves as State Basketball Analyst for VirginiaPreps.com, part of the Rivals.com Network. Check out Hatfield's Twitter page for more sports related updates, and you can also read his work in the Suffolk News Herald. To contact Matthew, please e-mail [email protected], and don't forget to listen to him on High School Sports Talk from 10AM to Noon on ESPN Radio 94.1, plus watch him on the Cox 11 Sports Report.

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