Covenant senior Bryson Alley isn’t a completely conventional athlete.
He is gangly, for lack of a better term — a lot of arms and legs.
He can look disinterested right before a match — even his own mom has said he can appear “aloof.”
The difference is that he knows those things about himself and that self awareness is a big part of what makes him dangerous. It can look at times to opponents like he’s getting away with something when he makes a good play. Because of that, people underestimate him time and time again and he’s proved them wrong over and over again.
“A lot of people are like, ‘How did he get there? He’s so lucky’,” Alley said. “I’m like, I hear that every game. But over four years of varsity sports, I don’t think being lucky that often is just luck.”
That perception gap and Alley’s inherent athletic intelligence is part of what helped him confound opposing offensive players in soccer as part of a state championship team, become a starter on a state final four basketball team and emerge as a leader who was set to be No. 2 on Covenant’s tennis team this year that advanced to the state championship a year ago.
It’s also part of why he’s headed to Hampden Sydney to play tennis despite getting his senior season wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He’s an interesting player because he’s very laid back so he shows up on the court like he’s not even really all that interested,” said Covenant tennis coach Mo Gaffney. “That can make a player think he doesn’t even have to go hard. The next thing you know, he’s up in the match.”
While Alley didn’t get a chance to compete in the sport he’s playing in college this spring, he’d already put together a pretty incredible, storybook senior year. It began in fall where Alley started on defense for the third year for the Eagles’ soccer team that won the VISAA Division II state championship. But the genesis of that special run was a state semifinal overtime loss the year before that Alley played a major role in.
“I slipped on the last play of the game and the ball got through me and they scored to end the game and that, that really killed me,” Alley said. “I was really, really down on myself until the next season and then we actually turned it around. I actually wrote my college essay on that. They say not to write about sports, but that was just such a good story because it wasn’t about winning, it was about losing.”
The run to the title that followed paired Alley with the self-titled ‘Trinity’ once more, a group of three defenders that includes Alley, Michael Seelman and Giulio Degiorgis. That group came together in the early stages of their career, playing with then senior Mark Brumbaugh as sophomores. Brumbaugh provided a lot of leadership that season where Covenant advanced to the state semifinals before falling to North Cross. He also helped instill a lot of confidence in the group he was mentoring.
“We looked up to him, he was like a king who ruled the back line for as long as he had been there,” Alley said. “I was like the one guy you could tell was not supposed to be there sophomore year but I developed throughout and I learned from him. He left because he was a senior and (Degiorgis, Seelman and Alley) were like ‘coach, we can run three in the back.”
That trio powered Covenant to another state final four berth and then the state title run this fall and a 34-4-4 record over those two seasons. Along with regular keeper Will Maupin, those three allowed an average of just 0.6 goals per game in those two years.
“In many ways he is the gel of that defense and the resilience he displayed in disappointment from 2018 and rising to the challenge of leading a team in 2019 is just profoundly incredible,” said Covenant soccer coach Bryan Vebrugge. “It’s hard to put into words what he brought to the program.”
After kicking off his senior year with that run, Alley rejoined the basketball team after a year away from the program, and started the year deep on the bench. For one game.
“I came in and scored 10 points in the first game,” Alley said. “And then after that — I think the second game — I just continued to start.”
He got on the floor and stayed there for a lot of the same reasons he carved out a role in soccer and in tennis. His basketball IQ is incredible, he’s an excellent team defender and he wasn’t afraid to make suggestions to coaches if he thought it would put the Eagles in a better position to win.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” said Covenant coach Clark Walker. “You look at him and he doesn’t have an incredibly huge physical build but he’s one of the most mentally tough athletes at Covenant.”
That Covenant boys basketball squad was one of the most impressive stories of the winter season, rallying around junior Jonas Sanker’s electric scoring ability to win two state tournament games and advance to the VISAA D3 state final four. It was the first time in 11 years that the Eagles had even won a state tournament game.
“The progression throughout the season was really interesting, I haven’t really seen that with one season,” Alley said. “And it was just amazing cause I love basketball. Basketball is a passion of mine but just going that far with that group meant a lot to us.”
That basketball run that ended in the state final four set the stage for what had the potential to be an exciting finish to his high school career in the sport he’s set to play in college. Like soccer, Alley has developed steadily in tennis after picking the sport back up in high school. He went from being just outside the ladder as a freshman to making the top six as a sophomore and getting a chance to pair up with Degiorgis, one of his best friends, in doubles.
During that stretch, he’s become a much more confident tennis player according to Gaffney, transforming his game mentally to become the kind of player that can contribute to a collegiate program.
Tennis is also the sport where his trademark physical build can be a major advantage.
“In soccer I kind of swim when I run, when I’m really trying to get somewhere,” Alley said. “It’s very interesting on film sessions because nobody can stop laughing. But in tennis, you know, I got these long, skinny arms, I can just get anywhere to touch the ball — I just really don’t give up in tennis. Like if the ball drops, I’ve got to get there or I’m going to be really mad at myself.”
Alley’s tenacity is why in the last two seasons of tennis, he has risen to the occasion late in the year. Two seasons in a row, Alley has defeated a foe in the state finals — both times against Steward — that he lost to in the regular season. In one of those, he’d lost 10-1 to Steward’s No. 5 and flipped his entire approach to win 10-7 in the rematch. Upsets are fairly rare in high school tennis up and down the ladder, so finding a way to bounce back from a loss and scrap and claw to get a win on the biggest stage that level of the sport has to offer — the team state championships — is particularly impressive.
“That shows a lot about his competitive nature but also his willingness to think about an opponent differently and step up in the big competitions,” Gaffney said.
That’s one of Alley’s defining characteristics. Maybe he doesn’t immediately appear to be a super athlete and maybe his running style elicits a laugh during a team film session. But whether it was the soccer state semifinals and title game with a raucous student section supporting the Eagles, the renewal of the STAB basketball rivalry after years of the crosstown rivals not playing each other or a road game in front a hostile Virginia Episcopal crowd during hoops that was heckling him and chanting his name at one point, Alley loves a big stage.
“Coach Gaffney says ‘If there’s a camera on Bryce he’s going to play 10 times better’,” Alley said. “I just love the crowds. It’s so energizing. I’m going to go at it as hard as I can. And I think that’s a big part of my game.”
It’s a big part of his game that has served him well in high school and that he’ll now bring to the next level.
Odds are good that someone is going to underestimate Alley then too and like a lot of Covenant’s opponents over the years, they’re probably going to find out what a mistake they’ve just made.