The storied boys basketball program at W.T. Woodson has accomplished a lot over the years. A reliable mainstay in the Northern Region Tournament field just about every year, the Cavaliers have racked up 19 district titles and put together numerous 20-win seasons, including a 20-5 mark in their 2011-12 campaign.
Yet the Woodson trophy shelf still holds plenty of empty space. The Cavaliers have yet to win a Patriot District crown, and they haven’t captured a district title since taking home the Liberty District trophy in 2007. Above all, though, they have never earned the distinction of Northern Region champions.
“We would like to get over that hurdle,” said eighth-year Woodson coach Doug Craig. “You keep knocking at the door long enough, you hope to get there. I think we had some tough losses last year in big games, but we’re in the big game every year and that’s important. We’ve just got to find a way to get it done and clean up some of the little things.”
A talented group of returning players gives the Cavaliers a good chance to meet those long-awaited goals this season, as four out of five starters return from a squad that finished the regular season with a 20-3 record last year. Though they will rely heavily on 6-foot-6 sharpshooter Tommy Stepka -- last season’s Co-Player of the Year in the Patriot District -- Woodson will depend largely on its youngest starter to keep things running smoothly on both ends of the court. Sophomore point guard Eric Bowles, Jr. is ready to apply the lessons he learned during an impressive freshman season to his second year running the Woodson offense.
“During practice I just have to get everyone focused,” Bowles said. “I have to be the leader on the court. I’m the coach on the court basically.”
With cat-like quickness and superior court vision at his disposal, Bowles tore through his freshman season with the swagger of a seasoned veteran. He established himself right from the gun, nailing a buzzer-beating three-pointer that handed Woodson a 61-58 victory in the season opener against Robinson.
“During that game I had butterflies. I was nervous during that whole game,” Bowles said. “After that buzzer-beater, it kind of calmed everything down. But I had to live up to a certain expectation to play good every game.”
The 5-foot-11 floor general aims to improve on the 6.8 points and five assists he averaged last season. More than that, though, coaches expect him to minimize turnovers and create openings for his teammates.
“Eric sees the floor really well,” Craig said. “He passes the ball extremely well. He’s unselfish... He can score the ball if you leave him, but he’s really a kid that excels at making other kids better. He’s very good in the open floor and is quick with the ball. His poise as a freshman last year was very remarkable. He’s a little bigger, a little stronger this year, so we’re expecting his overall game to take a step up.”
Bowles leads a team that hopes to thrive on depth and experience. Six of the team’s top 10 scorers from last year are back this season, and a few new faces have risen from a junior varsity squad that finished 12-4 last season. With his brother, Brandon, gone as the team’s lone graduated starter from last year’s team, Tommy Stepka will enter his senior season with a target on his back. His length and three-point shooting ability will stretch defenses and open up space for players like Michael Hansler, the team’s starting two-guard whose late-season injury contributed to the team’s 1-2 playoff stint last season.
The pieces are in place for Woodson to return to glory this season. Whether or not they get there will depend in part on how they respond to last year’s back-to-back playoff losses.
“I think anytime you bring back a lot of guys from a team that had a lot of success, obviously the expectations and goals are set high,” Craig said. “I think having success makes you hungry for more success. We didn’t end the season last year the way we wanted to, so I think we have a little bit of extra motivation to hopefully get back and do it right.”