A big one: Unbeaten, red-hot Sherwood visits defending state champ, rival Deerfield today

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- It's been a while since there was a lot of buzz surrounding a Sherwood Christian Academy/Deerfield-Windsor basketball game.

After all, the two Albany private schools haven't even played each other in the past two years. Maybe that's why there has been so much talk about tonight's meeting.

Or maybe it's Sherwood's 13-0 record, or the fact that both are 3-0 in region and locked into a battle for first now that SCA has moved back up from GISA AA to Class AAA.

Or maybe it's just because its Sherwood and Deerfield.

"There's been a lot of talk about this game,'' Deerfield sophomore center Tyrone Culbreth said Monday during DWS' final practice before tonight's showdown. "A lot of people are downing us and saying that Sherwood is better.''

It's no secret that Deerfield has dominated the series, but Sherwood comes into today's 8 p.m. tipoff at DWS with a lot of confidence and a perfect record. Still, no one is denying that this will be Sherwood's biggest test of the season.

"We have only played two AAA opponents,'' Sherwood coach Gavin Felix said. "We haven't gone up against our level of competition enough to be cocky. We're 13-0, but we have to keep it in perspective.

"We're getting ready to play the defending AAA state champions. I'm sure this is a significant upgrade from what we have seen (this season).''

Then, of course, there is the rivalry factor.

"I'm sure it will be jammed-packed (tonight),'' DWS coach Gordy Gruhl said. "We're together in the same city so there is the rivalry. We're excited about playing them.''

The Knights (8-3) have been rolling lately. They lost just about everyone from last year's state championship team, and 11 of the 14 players on this year's team are sophomores. To make it even more difficult, DWS won the GISA Class AAA state football title, and eight players on the basketball team, including senior Banks Kinslow, the only returning starter, didn't join the basketball team until a day before DWS' first game.

"We only had one practice together,'' said Kinslow, who was the quarterback in the state title game on a Friday and a guard on the court the following Tuesday in Deerfield's opener in late November. "We've been playing better. It's just getting games under our belt. It's like this every year with the football players (joining late). We knew it would be like that in the beginning.''

Culbreth sees the difference every day.

"The team chemistry has gotten better,'' he said. "We trust each other more, and we're playing better as a team. And the defense has picked up a lot.''

Deerfield has not only won three in a row coming into tonight's game, but the Knights had no trouble beating Stratford, which beat DWS earlier by four points. In the second meeting, DWS led, 49-17, at halftime and it now appears the Knights are putting teams away in a hurry.

"We've scored 49, 57 and 51 in the first half of our last three games,'' said Gruhl, who tinkered with his lineup and now has a smaller yet quicker team since inserting Sam Shellhass into the starting rotation. "We're doing more things with the smaller lineup, and our defense has been better.''

Gruhl's scouting report on Sherwood was simple: "They play a lot like us. They are an up-tempo team that plays good defense.''

That should make tonight's game even more fun for the fans, who will be talking about this one -- before and afterward.

"People are excited about it, the faculty, the students, the fans,'' said Felix, who came from New Orleans to take the job at Sherwood.

And while he's only been here less than a year, he has been here long enough to know there is a buzz about this game

"People will look at how we do (against Deerfield) to gauge our success this year,'' Felix said. "That's not the way I would approach it. I know it's a big opportunity, but we still have to play Westfield again and Southland again.''

Felix said his players feel the same.

"They are definitely excited, but they are more excited about playing an up-tempo opponent that is good. That opponent could have any name. It's not the Deerfield thing,'' Felix said. "Our kids are more concerned with staying undefeated no matter who the opponent is.''

Of course, Felix wasn't around when Deerfield would routinely beat Sherwood, and looks at tonight's game for what it is -- a big region showdown. It's the first of what could be three meetings. DWS travels to Sherwood on Jan. 28, and the two teams could meet for the region title next month.

"We could play them three times, or maybe even meet them in the state tournament,'' Kinslow said.

Sherwood's success story has been written by balance and more balance. All five starters are averaging double figures. M.J. Vangure and Gary Holloway are averaging 13 points a game, and Patrick Stanford, Rashard Davis and Terrance Burnette are all averaging 12 points per game. Holloway leads the Eagles in rebounding with an average of 7.5 per game.

DWS has seen Culbreth emerge as a young force. He is averaging 13 points and 11.5 rebounds a game, but the leading scorers are the guards. Kinslow and Ramello Carter are both averaging 15.5 points per game.

This is the first round of what could grow into a season-long showdown between the two teams, and tonight's winner will have the early lead in the region -- and early bragging rights in Albany.

But again, it's only Round 1.

"It's a region game, and we might play them three times,'' Gruhl said. "It's a big test for us, but it's not for all the marbles. We know we'll get their best effort. Both teams will be ready to play. Their fans will be there. Our fans will be there. It will be a great atmosphere.''