MOUTH OF WILSON, Va. -- When you've been running the same program for as long as Oak Hill Academy coach Steve Smith -- 27 years and counting -- you tend to build rituals that become part of maintaining excellence. Every year after the first three practices, Smith writes down what he expects of his team. He keeps the paper in his desk drawer in the basketball office alongside the numerous trophies and artifacts he's accumulated in winning 860 games against only 53 losses since the 1985-86 season.
"I felt like we'd probably lose a couple games because of our scheduling," Smith said. "I didn't tell that to the guys, of course, but they were 11 guys that bonded together and got it done."
In the end, the team exceeded expectations and set a school record with 44 victories. In a school assembly May 11, they were honored for that feat and for capturing their seventh FAB 50 national title. The Warriors’ received medals, special Jordan Brand shoes and the ultimate team prize, the 2011-12 POWERADE FAB 50 national championship trophy.
"This is awesome," said point guard Tyler Lewis of the 200-person assembly that included Oak Hill's student body, administration, longtime supporters and parents who make the trek from out of town to rural southwest Virginia. "Finishing No. 1 and winning a ring is the reason why you come to Oak Hill."
Lewis' season at Oak Hill embodied the makeup of this year's team. Traditionally, Oak Hill players transfer in from all over the world, usually just for a season or two. So when Smith's coaching brethren heard Lewis arrived from Statesville, N.C., they were a bit skeptical. Lewis, an N.C. State recruit, ended up being Oak Hill's 28th McDonald's All-American.
"I told them 'guys, I think this kid is a little better than you guys think,'" Smith said. "He helped ground the other players like D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera. He knew what play to run, what side of the floor to run it on and knew what guy needed the ball."
In the spirit of this team-first oriented group, Smith named team tri-MVPs for the first time ever: Lewis, two guard Smith-Rivera (Georgetown) and wing Jordan Adams (UCLA).
Smith has named team co-MVPs twice in his tenure -- in 1992-93 with Jerry Stackhouse and Jeff McInnis and in 2003-04 with Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo. Not surprisingly, all four of those players made the NBA and both those unbeaten teams are not only considered Oak Hill's two best ever, but two of the best teams in high school basketball history.
This season Oak Hill's sum was greater than its individual parts and 7-foot center A.J. Hammons (Purdue), the team's best rebounder, put it best.
"If somebody wasn't playing well, there was always somebody willing to step up," Hammons said. "We weren't the most talented team [at Oak Hill], but we came together as a team and with 44 wins and zero losses we made a statement."