The Annandale Atoms have struggled on the basketball court in recent years, but this season they’ve flipped the script.
Last year they started 1-8; this year they started 8-1. Last year they were a young team trying to jell with a new coach. This year they’re an experienced unit playing for a man who feels far more comfortable in his role. Last year they were cellar dwellers in the Patriot District. This year they appear poised to host a playoff game.
You can attribute Annandale’s rapid improvement to a lot of things, but in the end it’s pretty simple.
“We’re pretty much just tired of losing,” said Michael Tran, the only senior in Annandale’s starting lineup. “We just want to keep this going and play as a team.”
Currently sitting in fourth place in Conference 7 with a 13-7, 5-5 record, Tran and company look like a different team from the one that finished last season 4-18. Greater cohesion at the guard position has led to fewer turnovers and more production behind the arc, much-needed improvements for a squad that doesn’t field a player above 6-foot-2.
As Annandale’s lineup has grown more connected, their coach has become more in tune with the program he took over last season. Matt Behne knew he had a talented group on his hands last year, but he also knew it might take time for them to develop the consistency needed to win.
“I’ve got a great rapport with these guys,” Behne said. “Last year I didn’t know anybody, so I had to build the rapport and work with these guys and get to know who they were. I needed to outline their goals and the goals of the program overall.”
Leading the charge this year is Austin Hall, a junior guard averaging 18.5 points per game. Hall displays the deft touch and moxie needed to make him the area’s most lethal three-point threat. He’s knocked down 64 treys so far this season, hitting at least six three-pointers on seven different occasions.
“His footwork and the way he sits is not always there, but when he hits an early three he gets going,” Behne said. “A lot of teams are keying on him now and they’re trying to limit his open looks. He’s learned how to use screens a lot better now, and he’s working to get open.”
Hall racked up a game-high 26 points to help Annandale blow past West Springfield 79-64 Tuesday night, including 14 second-quarter points that allowed the Atoms to outscore the Spartans 22-7 in that frame. He nailed five of his seven three-point attempts and all six of his free throws. He also delivered seven assists, though that was slightly negated by his six turnovers.
Hall isn’t Annandale’s only reliable scorer this year. Tran and junior forward Ron Alston also average in double figures, while junior guard Ahmed Elnour also has proven capable of putting the ball in the hoop.
“Everybody has the same goal in mind,” Hall said. “Everyone has the same mindset of sharing the ball and playing as a team. Everyone gets along with each other and everyone wants to succeed. We’re an actual team. In years past we were just a bunch of individuals.”
Annandale’s win over West Springfield on Tuesday was a big one. It halted West Springfield’s four-game win streak and put the Atoms in good position to overtake them for third place in Conference 7. Annandale closes the regular season with games against T.C. Williams and West Potomac, a considerably easier slate than the one facing West Springfield, which concludes with daunting tests against top dogs Lake Braddock and Woodson. Those results will prove pivotal, since the conference’s top three seeds will host playoff games.
Though they might look easier on paper, Behne insists his team’s upcoming games will be anything but cakewalks. T.C. Williams is hungry to record its first conference win of the season, and West Potomac took Annandale to overtime a few weeks ago.
Whoever the schedule throws at them, Behne’s boys have proven capable of overcoming just about whatever obstacle comes their way.
“All these guys are not only playing better, but they’re putting the common good of the team first, and that’s what I love to see,” Behne said. “We know it’s us versus the world. No one picks us against the big boys, but we’re going to use that as motivation going forward.”