Sometimes you’ve just got to be in the fight to understand the intensity it requires.
Western Albemarle coach Darren Maynard has talked extensively this year about how his team was prepared for this playoff run because they’d been through serious trials this year, battling against Jefferson District foes and coming up just short. The lessons learned as the Warriors accumulated an 0-5 mark against Albemarle and Louisa County, the only two teams that sat above them in the standings, seemed to pay off in the last week with a trio of huge wins over Spotswood, Hidden Valley and then Northside.
That last win, a shocker on the road Tuesday, vaulted the Warriors into the program’s first state title game, coming Saturday at 1 p.m. against John Marshall at Virginia Commonwealth’s Siegel Center. But for at least one key player for the Warriors, senior Teo Rampini, facing competitive adversity hasn’t been the hallmark of one season, it has been the hallmark of his career.
“It helps getting any kind of experience at an early age really helps calm you down,” Rampini said. “It helps you really take a deep breath in those big moments — you can keep your composure.”
Rampini, who scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the state semifinals, had the misfortune of entering the ranks of Jefferson District post players in the age of Austin Katstra and Jake Hahn. In a series of battles over Rampini’s first three years in high school, he and an array of other Western post players like Austin Cress went toe-to-toe against Albemarle’s Katstra, sometimes playing six times in the last two seasons. Occasionally, like in a February 2016 battle in Crozet and a mid-January 2017 clash, the Warriors managed to contain Katstra, but on a number of different occasions, Rampini was left to patch up his wounds and learn something from a close loss.
“Guarding those guys really helps me prepare for this matchup that we have upcoming with Isaiah Todd and all these great players,” Rampini said. “It has really helped me.”
Those battles had a tangible impact on Rampini who averages 8.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. The clashes helped him become a more aggressive, more assertive player. That isn’t something that comes completely naturally to the Western senior.
“I think he’s grown up a lot — he’s got so much experience playing in big, tough games,” Maynard said. “He’s figured out that you’ve got to fight fire with fire in terms of your intensity level and that’s probably not natural for Teo, he’s kind of a laid back guy. He’s figured out that being laid back in the big games doesn’t really work.”
Western hasn’t shied away from playing young players in recent years and it’s paid off in a big way. Ryan Ingram, who graduated in 2017, got playing time early and had one of the most productive, successful careers in Western history. On this year’s team, Jed Strickland and Chris McGahren got a lot of early minutes along with Rampini and they’ve all turned into much better, much more well-rounded players.
Rampini will lean on all his experience — including the opportunity earlier in his career where he guarded a 7-footer at a team camp — when he and the Warriors try and solve John Marshall. The Justices have a pair of players who stand 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-9 including the 6-10 centerpiece Todd, one of the nation’s top sophomore recruits. They’ve got weapons in the backcourt too where 6-1 Demarr McRae scored 26 in the state quarterfinals and 19 against George Wythe in the semis.
“We’re going to be really outsized Saturday but we can’t be afraid to go inside and do some stuff,” Maynard said. “We’ve got to make our moves and be tough and (Teo) is a big part of that. We’re going to have to knock down some outside shots too.”
Western has faced long odds before. Few gave the Warriors much of a chance earlier this week against previously unbeaten Northside, and a road win in a tough environment against Spotswood was also huge.
Sometimes you’ve got to be in the fight to know the intensity it requires. Western and Rampini, with the competitive scars to show, will be back in the fight Saturday with a state title on the line.