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Kuzemka puts up a shot for Centreville during his senior year.

Centreville High School’s Chris Kuzemka decommits from Virginia Tech football for Loyola (Md.) basketball

Few high school athletes are talented enough to face the dilemma Centreville High School’s Chris Kuzemka had the option to face: to play Division I football, or Division I basketball. 

The 6-foot point guard and wide receiver extraordinaire chose the former, then the latter. All of the decisions were made by himself, he said, and they were weighed underneath the gravity of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of playing basketball at Centreville his senior year. 

When the brute of the pandemic threatened to close all indoor activities this past winter in Fairfax County, Kuzemka verbally committed to play football at Virginia Tech as a preferred walk-on. He said he did this to provide security in case a cancelled season on the hardwood prevented him from earning any Division I basketball offers, and because he said it made him less stressed to have the decision done. Centreville — along with other schools in the Virginia High School League (VHSL) — did end up having a basketball season. 

During said season, Kuzemka was 2021 Virginia Class 6 Player of the Year and Centreville won the Virginia Class 6 boys’ basketball title over Potomac, 63-49 — an opportunity that many other leagues in the DMV didn’t have. Well before the victory, Kuzemka said, is when he began to have a change of heart. 

“I did love football, but even after like mid-season in basketball, I knew basketball was what I wanted to do,” Kuzemka said. “But I didn’t want any distractions from the game or anything like that, so I didn’t want to say anything during the season.”

This past year, basketball was played before football — the fall staple was played in the spring across the VHSL. Kuzemka committed to Virginia Tech before the January start to Centreville’s basketball season, but he said he wanted to see the basketball season play out in its entirety before he decommitted from football. Kuzemka officially decommitted from Virginia Tech March 22, during Centreville football’s bye week, to prevent distractions with the team, he said. His family thought he made the right decision; it even almost brought a tear to his mom’s eye, Kuzemka said, for making the switch and following his heart. 

Childhood friend and teammate of Kuzemka’s on the basketball court and football field at Centreville, Reece Shirmer, said deep down in his heart, he knew Chris was a basketball guy. When he heard about his friend’s decision to decommit from Virginia Tech, he said it made a lot of sense to him. 

Centreville High School varsity football head coach Jon Shields — who Kuzemka said helped him get connected and receive interest as a preferred walk-on to Virginia Tech — said he didn’t think Kuzemka would decommit the minute a basketball offer came, but he understood his decision and respects his basketball game greatly. 

After the two-sport standout announced his decommitment from Virginia Tech, Kuzemka said coaches from mid-major basketball programs like UMBC, Canisius, VMI and Loyola (Md.) began contacting him. The team that stood out from the rest of the pack, Kuzemka said, was Loyola. After talking with the Greyhound’s coaching staff on a Zoom call April 16, Kuzemka said he was impressed enough that he committed that night over the phone before many other programs got the chance to talk to him.

“Loyola was definitely the one that pushed me the most,” Kuzemka said. “I felt the best energy, best vibe with [them]. I mean, [Tavaras] Harvey, the head coach, called me four days, five days in a row, so I felt like he really bought in. He really wanted me — it was really cool.”

Other than an exuberant coaching staff that believes in him, Kuzemka said the way Loyola plays on the court fits his playstyle. He said the Greyhounds have a lot of guys that can space the floor, and said they emphasize “pick and pop” and “drive and dish” plays offensively. However, there isn’t much on the floor Kuzemka can’t do, Centreville High School varsity basketball coach Kevin Harris said. 

“You could definitely tell he had the makings of a college basketball player, just on his work ethic alone and the talent he had at a young age,” Harris said. “But when he got to Centreville his sophomore year, you started seeing a little more of it — the passing ability, the defensive ability, playmaking for other guys and getting his own points as well whenever he needed to and whenever the team needed him to — and at that point, we were like, ‘This kid could do something at the college level.’”

Shirmer said the first time he and Kuzemka trained together since middle school after he returned from Paul the Sixth High School (PVI) — where Kuzemka played basketball as a freshman prior to transferring to Centreville before his sophomore year — he could tell everything everyone said about Chris wasn’t hype. Shirmer said he remembered thinking, “This kid’s special, he’s the real deal, and he’s just ‘it,’” before their sophomore campaigns. 

“I’ve been guarding him for five, six years and I’ve never been able to steal the ball from him,” Shirmer said. “He’s really unpredictable and he’s so fast — it makes it hard to react.”

With Kuzemka’s basketball prowess, it was always earned and never given. Before his junior-year football season, Kuzemka tore his ACL — effectively ending both his football and basketball seasons during a critical time that puts many across the country on recruiter’s radars. After the injury, Shirmer said he’s never seen someone recover to be so healthy, fast and strong like it never happened. 

Kuzemka’s recovery from his torn ACL gets back to what Shields, Harris and Shirmer all attested to: Kuzemka’s unmatched work ethic. It’s what separates him from so many high schoolers with similar height and weights, and it’s what Shields said was what he first noticed about Kuzemka. It’s also what Harris picked up on after a basketball game his sophomore year. 

Harris recounted a game early in Kuzemka’s sophomore season where he missed a lot of free throws. It was to be expected, Harris said, because Kuzemka just finished playing football and he thought he’d be out of basketball shape and that his timing would be a little off. Harris told Kuzemka to not worry about it and to get back after it in practice the next day. That was until Kuzemka called Harris that night.

“[Chris] was like, ‘Hey coach, can I get in the gym at six tomorrow before school,’ and I was like, ‘Sure, yeah, of course,’” Harris said. “I let him [in], he was there right there when I pulled up. He got in the gym, he got after it, and I don’t think he ever had an issue with his free throw shooting again.”

Shirmer’s spent many days with training with Kuzemka — some days putting up 1,000 shots in Kuzemka’s converted barn-turned-basketball court, followed by running routes on the football field for hours, he said. But even then, he said it’s hard to keep up. 

“Loyola’s getting the hardest worker they ever will,” Shirmer said. “Chris facetimes me at 5 a.m. and he’s in the gym at our school putting up shots asking if I want to come over. It’s 110 degrees outside and he’s in his barn with no A/C just putting up 2,000 shots. He’s skipping parties and stuff just to put up shots and work out and get better, and that just goes with him being focused.”

Few can get in and out get in and out of routes and run by people on the football field the way Kuzemka can, Shields said; or go from standing dribbling to a full sprint like him, Shirmer said, but talent isn’t the only avenue that hopeful Division I recruit has to take. Kuzemka has proven work ethic and the ability to overcome adversity to be major culprits of his opportunity at Loyola, but also it’s important to shine under the spotlight that a big game brings. 

On January 8, Centreville faced off against national perennial power, No. 4 PVI. Kuzemka said he thinks his performance in this game “switched his life,” and it was the main game tape he said he sent to college coaches. Despite the 30-point loss, 100-70, Kuzemka didn’t back down to the superior team. He dropped 32 points against the likes of five-star shooting guard and Duke commit Trevor Keel — No. 1 player in Virginia according to 247 Sports — and four-star junior point guard Doug McDaniel. 

Kuzemka said his advice to prospective recruits is to always be ready for opportunities like his against PVI. 

“Just keep on pushing, going at it, keep working,” Kuzemka. “If you really want to chase your dreams, then just chase them. Nothing’s impossible if you really want to do it.”

Countless hours of grinding in the gym combined with exceptional talent and dazzling performances when the competition is the strongest has brought Kuzemka to Loyola — where he said he wants to have fun, stay healthy and “smile through the days” because of all the hard work it’s taken to get to this point. Kuzemka took his official visit to the Greyhound’s campus in Baltimore June 13 and said it was “really awesome” that he finally got to meet the coaching staff in person that invested in him. Additionally, after spending the day with guards Nick Marshall and David Brown III — two other incoming Loyola freshmen that he’s known and played against for a long time — he said he thinks the three of them “can be something special” in the future for the Greyhounds. 

At Loyola, Kuzemka said his goals consist of winning a Patriot League regular- and post-season title and advancing to March Madness. He said he wants to be a part of one of those teams in the NCAA Tournament that “goes out there and shocks the world,” with a first-round upset and hopes to advance to the Sweet 16. 

Advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament would likely be a good day for Kuzemka. But he said on other days, ones that aren’t going too well — whether it was rehabbing from his ACL tear or just any off day — he knows what to turn to. 

“When I’m having a bad day,” Kuzemka said, “I go out there and shoot baskets. I always say basketball cures my stress, my pain, whatever I have, I go out there dribble a basketball, shoot a basketball, just the sound of it, I feel like, heals whatever’s going on.”

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