The 2016/17 Varsity season began with an air of uncertainty. How would the Varsity recover from losing defensive stalwarts Conna Carroll and Richard Wilson? How would they replace the offensive production of legendary all-time leading scorer, Teni Mongo? How does ANY team recover from losing 3 players who matched their on-court prowess with off-court class? In spite of this, there was a greater emotion that dominated the pre-season…….excitement. From day one, the coaching staff and players alike knew that this was a team loaded with talent and from day one, the goal was set……the Varsity were targeting a first ever trip to the Final Four of Nationals.
With Adam Wernham, putting in 2 huge MVP performances to lead the Varsity to crucial early season victories against Dulwich College (84-55) and City of London School (80-60); it came down to a home and away series with former National Champion, Holy Trinity School for a place in the last 32 of National Schools. The Lions got off to a scintillating start in the home leg of the tie with a resounding 74-35 victory that was highlighted by Issy Solomon’s monster stat line of 11 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks. Taking nothing for granted against the much vaunted Holy Trinity team, the Varsity faced a treacherous January trip to Crawley in arctic conditions but there was nothing cold about the Lions. With Ross Bampton (Point Guard) orchestrating the play at both ends of the floor, the Varsity team put on a dominant display to secure a 69-39 win (133-74 on aggregate) and their place in the knockout stage of Nationals.
In the last 32, the Varsity faced a gruelling 4 hour trip to Winchester to face Peter Symonds College. The Lions got off to the perfect start scoring the game’s first 4 points but Peter Symonds showed all of their experience with a 14-5 run that gave them a 14-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Lions trailed 32-30 at half-time but the inside-out combination of Center, Luke Goodacre and Shooting Guard, Jay Parnell fuelled a 10-0 surge from The North that put them ahead 62-51 at the end of the third quarter. The fourth quarter was played at an electric pace and Peter Symonds scored 6 unanswered points to cut the deficit to 65-62 with 1 minute to play. After regaining their composure in a timeout, the Lions got the ball into the hands of the ice cool Parnell who closed the game with 4 consecutive made free throws to seal a 69-62 victory and a first ever trip to the ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Parnell was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the Sweet Sixteen, the Lions would renew their rivalry with a home game against Aylesbury Grammar School and the ‘Jungle’ was rocking! After conceding the games’ first 4 points, a 3-point shot from Lions’ marksman Jay Parnell sparked a scintillating 13-0 run for the Lions and they held a 17-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. Aylesbury cut the deficit to 3 (23-20) after hitting consecutive 3-point shots early in the second quarter but dynamic Guards, Adam Wernham and Kai Potts spearheaded yet another breath-taking 13-0 run to give the Lions a 36-20 half-time lead. Aylesbury rallied in the third quarter to cut the lead to 8 (46-38) but Potts scored the last 6 points of the quarter to put the Lions ahead 52-38. Following the lead of inspirational Captain, Ross Bampton; the Lions stifled Aylesbury’s attempt at a comeback in the fourth with smothering defence. With one final basket by the unstoppable Potts, the fearless Lions secured a 67-52 victory and their place amongst the last 8 teams in the country. Potts was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player with 15 points, 6 assists, 2 steals and 100% shooting from the free throw line.
In the ‘Elite Eight’, the mighty Lions took on 2-time National Champion, Churston Ferrers Grammar School from Devon. Churston Ferrers, led by former England and GB Coach, Rick Wooldridge, showed their pedigree as they scored the first 6 points of the game. The Lions’ responded through Ross Bampton and Jay Parnell who combined for 18 first quarter points to give The North a 22-17 lead. The two teams were separated by just a single point over the second and third quarters; The North holding a slender 50-44 lead with one quarter to go. Churston Ferrers quickly cut the lead to four at the start of the fourth, but a heroic Kai Potts shook off illness and entered the game to give the Lions 6 points and 2 assists in 2 minutes of pure inspiration. The final stretch of the game saw the relentless Bampton marshalling the Lions with courage and poise to spark a 19-2 run that would cap a historic and emphatic 77-55 victory. Bampton, the Lions emotional leader, was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player with an outstanding 22 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 steals. The victory sparked jubilation in the ‘Jungle’ as the brave Lions reached their first ever ‘Final Four’ and set their sights on a National title.
In the ‘Final Four’, the Varsity faced a tough road trip to play multi-time National Champion and London powerhouse, Greig City Academy. With their front-court depleted by injury, the Lions found themselves on the back foot in the first quarter, trailing 24-10. Despite being outmatched for size, strength, experience and athleticism; the Varsity had an obvious skill advantage and nobody plays with more heart than the courageous Lions. Spearheaded by the sublime Kai Potts and Sean Trumper, the Lion’s flair and speed were on full display in the second quarter as they put together a 20-8 run that sent them into half-time trailing by a mere 2 points. The loss of Potts to injury in the third quarter saw a shift in momentum and Greig City pushed their lead to 14 (65-51) with one quarter to go. Led by 3-point assassin, Jay Parnell, the Lions fought heroically until the final buzzer but it wasn’t quite enough as Greig City Academy progressed to the National Championship game with an 87-71 victory. Sean Trumper was named as the game’s Most Valuable Player with a valiant 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5 steals.
Whilst the heartache of being so close to the National Championship game was undeniable, the Varsity Lion’s journey to reach their first ever ‘Final Four’ was a remarkable story of brothers uniting with strength, pride and courage in their pursuit of greatness. An impossible act to follow? Let’s ask next year’s Varsity Lions……………