Varina High School (Henrico Co., VA)
Classification: Virginia High School League (VHSL) Class 5, Region B
2018-19 overall record: 24-2
They won the 2018 VHSL Class 5 state championship over Wakefield High School (Arlington, VA) for their first-ever title in school history. They followed that feat with a repeat as back-to-back regional champions and a 24-2 clip this past season. They consistently stood as either a #1 or #2-ranked public school in the Richmond area for the last two years. They’ve only lost four total games since the 2016-17 winter ended. Yes, by this point, it’s hard to imagine any follower of Virginia high school hoops who hasn’t heard of the Varina Blue Devils on the recent basketball scene. Heck, I can even recall learning about the varsity program’s success back during my senior year of college; a year before I got into this scouting gig.
The Blue Devils indeed caused much local chatter in the past, without question, and deservedly so. However, fans were shocked when another strong run to the state crown by the team would come to an end earlier than expected in 2018-19. As the favorite to repeat, Varina would suffer a 74-61 defeat to Maury High School (Norfolk, VA) in the state’s semifinal round. Honestly, I felt it was just one of those happenings in which the ball didn’t bounce the right way for them back on that early-March night. Losses happen and sometimes there’s simply no answer for momentum that changes the course of a game. Nowadays, if one peeks his or her head inside the school’s gymnasium, they’ll realize most of the standout players from the past have come and gone. Regardless of what’s taken place, I’m seeing a good approach out of this newly-led Varina bunch to make sure respect remains on their name.
What We Know
- To put it out there bluntly, the deadly core of players who took up the majority of minutes last season has moved on from the program. A mix of graduating 2019 players and a few others making transfer choices occurred since Varina wrapped up its season with that loss to Maury. Still, as I always say, departure of one group leads to new opportunities for returning individuals, as there’s still considerable experience coming back to the Varina roster. Eight players (four seniors, two juniors, and two sophomores) could all arrive back for heavier contributions. From my own understanding, there’s also a couple of current football players who may show up for tryouts.
- Former two-year assistant Kenneth Randolph now takes over the mantle as the head varsity coach. He succeeds Andrew Lacey, who was hired to lead the Richard Bland College (Petersburg, VA) men’s basketball program after compiling a 109-46 record following six seasons at Varina. Already, I like everything about Coach Randolph’s strategies of getting his potential group ready to go to war. My Thursday open gym visit saw a pure focus from the coaching staff in ensuring the guys will be put in positions to play at their strengths. Figuring this out in the preseason should call for possible smoother sailing once games start piling up. I’m sure Coach Randolph will hold all of his players accountable but still indeed have their best interests at heart.
- It’s looking like this year’s group will definitely rely on speed over size. Basically everyone who participated in the workout could step out on the wing offensively; I didn’t see any true post players out there. Spreading the floor has become a common trademark of today’s game, so Varina should find some benefits of their perimeter-based crew. Of course, some extra height always helps in the case of any team, but I honestly don’t see that as a main need for the Blue Devils. Their strategy in the past could continue to succeed with what they have coming back. As far as chemistry goes, it seems they’ve done well in instilling that element early on.
- I will say this: no matter the year or circumstances, folks can’t ever count Varina out due to their resoluteness. That program has absolutely produced several, what I like to call, ‘go-getters.’ Once the Blue Devils set their sights on something, one can be assured that they won’t stop pounding their way through all obstacles until they get the job done. I heard others agree last year on a statement that detailed how Varina’s all-around mentality could surpass its inevitable talent at times. When you add that to a notice of how much their guys love being in the gym, it’s no shocker to see why they’re always brought up in discussion. Thursday’s two-hour session involved full-court finishes, shooting drills, execution of plays both in transition and the half-court, and 5v5 competition.
Who to Watch
* Obviously, with weeks left until tryouts, the roster remains unofficial. Still, several guys stood out during my visit, whom all I feel can make notable contributions if they fill a roster spot.
Corey Harden ’20 – A lengthy and athletic 6’2” wing, Harden appears to have become more comfortable in his physical traits and skillset over the last six months. He plays best when putting those such traits to full use and especially can contribute on the defensive end. His standout wingspan and quick timing both help in making him a constant shot-contester, along with picking off steals and blocking other attempts. I’m looking forward to see what Harden can prove on the scoring side this year too, as he makes shots fairly well and runs the floor to finish in transition. He’s another one of those guys who doesn’t have to dominate the ball to put points on the scoreboard. Varina may very well place him in a couple of different positions on the floor, where I expect him to deliver regardless of what role he takes on.
Jaylon Travis ’20 – At 5’11,” Travis gives the Blue Devils a valuable option as a guard who can handle up to three different spots. I’ve stated in the past that a few of my favorite things about the senior’s game pertains to his competitiveness, way of getting past defenders, and ‘head-hunting’ style of play when attacking the rim. He never takes a play off and should act as a needed enforcer for the team with his no-nonsense attitude. Offensively, I’d still categorize him as a slasher who typically sizes up opponents to get into the lane with aggressiveness. Once in the lane, the results of drawn fouls and/or tough finishes tend to fall in Travis’ favor. Defensively, he shows that same aforementioned edge and makes sure to stay in front of his man when guarding on-ball. Being able to seek out appropriate shots, especially in the mid-range area, will be key for the vet in his last go-around. His shooting and overall scoring consistency has made progress since this past spring.
Alphonzo Billups ’22 – Having the best night performance on Thursday, I think this season will emerge as the sophomore’s ‘breakout campaign’ in Henrico County and possibly the entire state of Virginia. I’ve seen Billups play on various occasions in travel tournaments, showcases, team camps, etc. since April of this year. Each showing has led to me maintaining my firm belief that he’s one of the top 2022 prospects I’ve scouted in the Richmond area. For starters, he contains the absolute ‘basketball look,’ with a 6’5” slender frame, long arms and legs, and a swiftness to his movements. Billups already controls the ball really well to get off shots at a high rate, scoring from any level of the floor. Once the guard/wing seeks the opportunity, he rises for dunk attempts off of one-leg bounce. Defensively, he can move his feet, block shots, and has the chance to become Varina’s best on-ball defender. We may see times in which he guards all five different positions. There’s an extreme amount of versatility in the youngster’s game and I can’t wait to see how he turns it on in his second varsity year after showing promise last season.
Kahihl Venable ’21 – Playing as the quickest Blue Devil with the ball in his hands during Thursday, I can picture the 5’9” Venable being handed the keys of the lead guard spot for the next two years if he keeps proving his worth. I love the pace at which he plays at: up-tempo but not too sped up to the point where it disrupts the offense’s flow. He has a good handle, can make shots from outside of the arc, gets low past defenders towards the rim, and defends hard. There’s much pride in his game and a big heart with a complete desire to win at all costs; it reflects that Varina mentality I touched upon earlier. The way that Venable can box out and go after rebounds can initiate the team’s fast break even quicker, as I’m sure he’ll make the right decision of setting up others. The junior recently made a good impression at our 2019 ‘Virginia Phenom 150’ camp (9/28), where Jeff Bendel (Phenom’s Director of Player Analysis) noted him as one of the day’s best ‘glue-guys.’
Christian Carden ’22 – My Phenom Hoops’ co-worker, Frank Bennett, and I both knew we would need to keep a watchful eye on Carden after noticing him back in the 2019 Old Dominion University team camp (8/9 – 8/11). He first captures attention due to having grown a couple of inches now to around 6’4”; one of the tallest on the team. In addition, the forward has a good physical frame to build into and can give Varina inside production. Carden had a stellar night on Thursday once the guys start getting up and down for full-court runs. He keeps showing a nose for the ball on rebounds and also faced up really well around the free-throw line area to make attacking drives. Nobody could prevent him from getting a chance at the basket when he decided to just go. An everlasting motor will likely be required from him both offensively and defensively from Varina, as he’s another young talent who brings back experience and a solid feel of playing the game.
Quincy Jefferson ’21 – Football’s currently in session for the junior returnee but I have no doubt Jefferson will make a big impact once he dons his jersey yet again. The 6’3” wing’s made notable improvement to his offensive package, complementing his physicality. In the last few times I’ve seen him, he’s shot the ball more confidently, goes after stick-backs, can succeed on finishes as a runner in transition, and causes deflections. Jefferson’s pull-up game looks like a go-to of his now…making him more difficult to handle in the half-court. His assertiveness translates to the defensive end also, where he can defend multiple positions in a likewise fashion to Billups. If the veteran keeps it up, he should be in for a big year and see his stock skyrocket similarly to how his own play has advanced with results of hard work. For any football fans, they can catch Jefferson working at the wide receiver and safety slots on the gridiron right now for the remaining games.
Where You Can Find Them
- ‘DMVElite Tip-Off Tournament’; December 2019
- ‘King’s Fork Holiday Tournament,’ hosted by King’s Fork High School (Suffolk, VA); December 27 – 28, 2019
- 12th annual ‘VirginiaPreps Basketball Classic,’ Sessions I and II; January 2020
A Word from the Head Honcho
“Expectations of my own, personally, are just to be able to teach these guys how to play the right way and give them some type of identity. I think, for the last two years, Varina’s been living off of the expertise of a guy who stood out for a four-year career: Tyrese Jenkins ’19 (2018 & 2019 Region 5B Player of the Year/current Norfolk State University basketball freshman). It was probably Tyrese’s team for the last couple of years, not to mention the other older guys he had around him. So, now we just have to figure out who we are. We’re going to have to play fast, keep the turnover rates down, and strap up on defense. I’m confident that we’ll be discussed in the mix of postseason shaping by the end…but, of course, we won’t know until we start playing.”
– Head coach Kenneth Randolph (1st season)
Stepping back into the ruthlessly competitive Region 5B classification won’t ever be easy after losing so many key pieces, including five all-region performers. The hopes of keeping one’s status alive as a state contender becomes even more challenging for a team that’s held attention for a while. In Varina’s case, however, I don’t think they get fazed by or pay attention to any of those notions. The only thing I could see resting on the Blue Devils’ minds is making anyone feel like a fool for counting them out. They’re out to prove any doubters wrong this year, as Travis and Harden should bring that mindset from the very first practice. Billups is a stud in the making from what I’ve seen so far, while I’m curious to watch more of Carden and Venable. The returners have a winning pedigree and it’ll rest on their shoulders to determine how they want this winter to unfold.
Less than a month away from tryouts…let’s see who’s next up on this ‘open gym tour.’