‘We’re just on the front end’

Friday night didn’t exactly go the way the team hoped. Longwood took on the University of Houston in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and lost 86-46, with the Cougars in control all game long. But after the buzzer, Longwood players and Lancers Coach Griff Aldrich pointed to the program’s direction, looking at the progress made this year and how they’ve barely scratched the surface of what this could be. 

“I think Coach Griff and the coaching staff have built a program that people will always remember now,” said senior point guard Walyn Napper in the postgame press conference. He compared where the team was just a few years ago to now, having won Longwood’s first two Big South championships in the last three years and earned the program’s first two NCAA bids in the same period. 

“They didn’t have the success they wanted when he first got here, but now Longwood is a powerhouse, the target’s on our back,” Napper said. “It’s a great program, (it’ll) help you on and off the court. It’s not all about basketball. It’s about growing as a man. And Coach Griff has helped us all grow as young men and he’s helping us prepare for the real world.” 

Napper’s fellow senior, Jesper Granlund, pointed to the improvement in the team over the last four years, recording the school’s first back-to-back-to-back 20-win seasons, while also winning conference titles. 

“I think it shows growth inside the program,” Granlund said. “From where we were when I got here four years ago to where we are right now, I think it shows positive growth.” 

‘REALLY DREAM BIG’ 

And Longwood has shown growth from year to year. This year marks the third straight winning season for the school. To put it in perspective, the last time that happened was the Ron Carr era. That was from 1992 to 1995, when Longwood was in NCAA Division II. 

Before Aldrich arrived, the Lancers had one winning season on the Division I level. That was back in the 2008-09 season under Mike Gillian, when they went 17-14. You have to go back even farther if you want to find Longwood’s last season with 20 or more wins before Aldrich, to Ron Carr’s 1993-94 squad. And yet here we are, with three straight winning seasons and three straight 20-win seasons for the Lancers. 

“I think that the vision that was cast for me when I first interviewed at Longwood was to build a program that would be a championship caliber program and to really dream big,” Aldrich said in the postgame press conference Friday. “Not just have a good team every couple years but one that would be a perennial contender in the Big South and would get to the NCAA on a regular occasion. And I think three 20-win seasons in a row is a huge accomplishment. It’s a big testament to the institution at large.” 

Aldrich praised the school’s commitment to building a basketball program, their effort in recruiting Tim Hall to serve as athletic director and the extra support that’s been provided. 

“As a result of that, we’re able to recruit talented players, we’re able to attract quality staff,” Aldrich said. “We’re able to enhance the student athlete experience. I think pouring in that commitment, as a result of that, you’re seeing the growth in the program. It’s exciting to see and we’re just on the front end.” 

NEXT YEAR’S ROSTER 

Being down so far in Friday’s game, several of the Lancers’ younger players saw significant playing time. That includes freshman forward Emanuel Richards and sophomore forward Elijah Tucker. Richards scored 8 points in 20 minutes on the court, while Tucker added 6, to go along with 2 rebounds and an assist in 19. 

In the postgame press conference, the seniors gave credit to the younger players, saying their performance showed how quick they’ve developed and it was a sign for next year. 

“Today we saw Emmanuel Richards (have an) amazing game and the growth he’s having throughout the season has been amazing to see,” Granlund said. He also pointed to Szymon Zapala, the 7 ft Polish junior, who put up 6 points and 3 rebounds in limited action. “With Szymon and Elijah, from where they started off this season to where they are right now, it’s amazing to see.” 

Now some changes are guaranteed for next season. Napper has said he’s finished and while Granlund has a year left, the senior and Coach Aldrich made it clear Friday that he’s looking to go home to Finland. So where does that leave Longwood, Aldrich was asked after Friday night’s game. 

“You’re always surprised at this time of year who will leave and who will stay,” Aldrich said. “I would expect we would have a very strong team coming back. There’s a great chance we could have almost everybody back from this squad and that could be exciting.”