Losing can affect teams in various ways, depending on its regularity. One loss can galvanize a team and make it stronger. A couple losses here and there can keep a team humble and teach it to get better. Persistent losing, though, can deflate a locker room, sapping the air out of players’ lungs and extinguishing hope.
Stonewall Jackson senior Keaton Simmons knows that dejection all too well. Now considered one the most lethal point guards in Virginia, Simmons endured a 7-14 campaign during his first season on the varsity squad as a sophomore, then guided his team to an 11-11 mark that ended with a demoralizing loss to Fairfax in the opening round of the 6A North region tournament last season.
One year later, Simmons and company feel an entirely different energy in the Stonewall locker room. The Raiders are 9-1, fresh off an unbeaten showing at the L.C. Bird Holiday Hoops tournament in Richmond. A win over Battlefield Tuesday would equal their best start in program history.
“Everybody’s more energetic now,” Simmons said. “We’re winning, and we’re trying to keep that energy going and not lose focus.”
The turnaround starts with Simmons, who, at 5-foot-10, has taken his game up a notch even after garnering Conference 8 player of the year and first team all-state honors last season. A dangerous slasher with a reliable mid-range game, Simmons proved he could score nearly at will last year, averaging 23 points per game while also dishing out 4.1 assists. This year he’s bumped his scoring average to 25.8, currently the eighth best mark in the area, and he’s increased his rebounding clip from 4.1 boards per game to 6.7.
Even after averaging 3.8 steals per contest last year, Simmons worked hardest on his defense and conditioning in the offseason. He also honed his long-range game, an improvement that paid immediate dividends when he splashed 15 three-pointers in the Raiders’ first three games this season.
“That’s expanded his game and opened it up even further,” Stonewall Coach Marcus Lawrence said. “Because of his quickness he can really get by you, but now you have to guard him out there at the three-point line.”
Simmons’s scoring bonanza — he hit the 1,000 point mark in last week’s win over King’s Fork despite not playing varsity his freshman year — has opened the floodgates for more buckets from his teammates, too. Defending 4A state finalist King’s Fork played a box-and-one on Simmons, doubling him whenever he touched the ball. That limited the Stonewall catalyst to a season-low 18 points, but it freed up fellow guard Zach Hinton, who finished with a season-high 26 points in the 73-67 win.
Hinton, a versatile 6-1 guard who excels around the rim, has increased his scoring from 10.1 points per game to 16.2 this season. The graduation of forwards Hirk Williams and Shamar King have slotted Hinton to the four spot this year, where he’s pulling down a team-high 6.9 boards per game. With fellow guard Devin Nordike adding to the backcourt’s production with a deadly shooting touch, the Raiders’ small-ball approach is paying off in the form of 78.4 points per contest.
“Golden State does it because it’s fast,” Lawrence said of the guard-heavy lineup. “We do it out of necessity.”
Simmons’s value shined brightest last Monday against longtime Richmond power Highland Springs, a game in which his teammates struggled to produce. He emerged as the only Stonewall player to hit double figures, racking up a season-high 35 points to carry the Raiders to a 63-59 victory.
Simmons has so far struggled to generate significant Division I recruiting interest, something he and his coach attribute to his height. Following his standout junior season, he heard from Radford, VMI and a handful of Division II schools.
“I was kind of surprised, but I’m always a humble person and I try to stay humble and just always put a chip on my shoulder,” said Simmons, who recently talked to coaches from King University and Southern Connecticut State. “I just continue to play hard and have motivation.”
Set to graduate at 17, Simmons thought about re-classing as a junior and transferring elsewhere, but he didn’t want to abandon his coaches and teammates at Stonewall. Now he’s contemplating the possibility of developing his body and recruiting interest at a prep school like Hargrave Military Academy or Fork Union next year.
In the meantime, Simmons is focused on returning his Stonewall squad to the district champion status it achieved in 2013. To get there the Raiders will need to go through defending champion Battlefield, whom they face in a home game Tuesday.
“We’re going to get tested right off the bat here in 2016,” Lawrence said.