Royal Relationships: Eastern Hancock team has basketball bond

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Eastern Hancock’s Landon O’Neal concentrates on his short jump shot against Hagerstown in their game on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

Tom Russo | The Daily Reporter

CHARLOTTESVILLE — They may only have one set of brothers on the team, junior twins Jacob and Silas Spaulding, but there is a basketball brotherhood at Eastern Hancock High School.

The Royals (20-5), ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press Class 2A poll, meet Southmont (19-6) today at 10 a.m. in one of two Class 2A regional semifinal games at Greenfield-Central High School.

Triton Central (13-11) and University (15-9) play in game two, slated to start at noon. The winners meet for one of four semi-state spots in the regional title game at 8 p.m.

The Royals are a group of 16-to-18-year-olds that have developed a basketball bond starting back when they were also learning the challenges of buttons, zippers and tying their shoes.

In addition, the little guys were getting some quality basketball coaching from a veteran varsity high school mentor, and their coach now, Aaron Spaulding, father of the junior twins.

“When they were in kindergarten, we put a couple of grades together to play some travel (basketball),” coach Spaulding, in his 23rd year leading the Royals, said. “I’ve been with them one way or another since most of them were in kindergarten or first grade. We’ve had others come in at different stages.”

They’ve won their share of games and tournaments along the way, including the biggest prize, to date, last week’s sectional championship. It was the school’s first in boys basketball since 2008.

“We played a lot of basketball, but more than anything, they have worked at it and played together,” coach Spaulding said. “There are a lot of good players, but there has been a lot of hard work and teamwork and things of that nature.”

By working and playing together they have developed a great bond. It’s led them to being more than just basketball teammates.

“We’re not a team that met up in high school, but a team that grew up together,” Silas Spaulding said. “We built trust early rather than just building it in high school. Some teams don’t even meet each other until they are on the basketball team. Being friends outside of high school really makes a difference on our trust level and our chemistry. We didn’t have to build our chemistry. We already had it.”

“We’ve all played with each other forever and we are all really good friends, so we never argue about anything,” senior Cyrus Burton added. “We all like to be with each other which is a big thing. We’re not just like a team. We’re a group of friends who are doing the same thing.”

Eastern Hancock’s 13.5 assists per game is the highest — slightly above University at 13.2 — of the four teams in the Greenfield-Central Regional. Averaging only 6.3 turnovers per game, the Royals have the top assist-to-turnover ratio of the quartet.

Those are the kind of stats that scream teamwork and trust.

“We know how each other play,” senior Landon O’Neal said. “We’re all good friends so no one is going to complain about not getting the ball or ‘he shoots too much.’ We don’t really care about all that. We just like to win.”

They are all getting their share of shots. Eastern Hancock has six players that have hit 23 or more 3-pointers on the season and another that is in double digits. They are the only team in the tournament with three active double-figure scorers. O’Neal averages 16.5, while Jacob Spaulding and Silas Spaulding follow with 13.5 and 10.9 per game, respectively.

Seven different players average five points or more and all seven had at least three double-digit scoring games.

The 20 wins on the season are the most for Eastern Hancock since the 2002-03 team went 20-6. The last team that won more than 20 was the 1975-76 team that went 21-3. Last year’s squad, which was led by most of the same players on this year’s team, went 19-6.

The numbers are more evidence of how this group’s teamwork is paying off.

Coach Spaulding said it’ll take that teamwork and more against a taller Southmont team to tie the mark of the 1976 Royals and move on to the title game.

“Our biggest thing, as it has been most of the year, is our ability to rebound,” the coach said. “(Southmont’s 6-5 Avery Saunders) is active on the glass, long and athletic. The biggest key will be us being able to rebound, but also the normal stuff of taking care of the basketball and being active and getting hands on passes defensively. Those are all staples on what we’ve got to do.

“We’ve got to play good basketball. In order to play good basketball you have to be focused. You have to have good practices, those type of things, and not let all the extra stuff (that comes with winning a sectional distract you). We want to keep it like any other game.”