The Sanford Warriors boys’ basketball team enters the 2021 DIAA State Basketball Tournament as the overall No. 1 seed, with a record of 11-2.
In a field of 47 teams, with this season’s unique open concept, Sanford remains the favorite, as they have been each of the past three seasons. Despite that, this team is unique compared to those of recent memory.
During the past three years Delaware hoop fans saw an amazing nucleus form in Hockessin.
Point guard Corey Perkins and forward Jyare Davis dressed varsity for five years in blue and gold. Forward Devin Harris developed into a starter and guard Hassan Perkins transferred from Tatnall to form a supremely talented class of 2020. Add to that core four the top player in Delaware’s class of 2021, Nnanna Njoku.
The Warriors saw a Final Four appearance a state championship in the first two years of this run, while Covid-19 ended a shot for a back- to-back title run.
With the disappointing and unresolved end of the 2020 season, Sanford’s core was forced to change.
Jyare Davis is now at Providence. Devin Harris is playing at Bates College in Maine. Corey and Hassan Perkins are both doing grad transfer years, with Corey at St. Thomas More in Connecticut and Hassan playing at Feltrim Academy in Florida.
The last part of that core is the man in the middle, Njoku. Even he already decided where he will play his college ball next year when he committed to Villanova in April of 2020.
There has been a bit of a pipeline with Delaware players going to Villanova with Donte Divincenzo and Adrianna Hahn in 2015, as well as former Sanford star Will Sheridan in 2003.
Yet, Njoku said this didn’t factor into his decision. Villanova has always been on his radar.
“I’ve been a huge Nova fan since I was young. I moved to Delaware in 2016 and I didn’t know Donte or Adrianna,” he said. “It was more of me loving (coach) Jay Wright and wanting to learn more from him … knowing that they can take me from where I’m at now and hopefully make me into a pro.”
Going into this season with a commitment already locked in, it could have been easy for a player’s intensity to drop. However, Sanford Coach Stan Waterman said this is not in Njoku’s character.
“He works hard,” Waterman said. “A lot of times when you get a guy at that talent level, the talent and work ethic don’t add up, but with Njoku’s his work ethic matches his talent and that’s one of the things that makes him special.”
Njoku’s said he intended to stay focused going into this season.
“Since I’ve committed to Villanova, I compared their style to what we do here at Sanford, and I’ve tried to put things into my game this year that will help me when I get there,” he said.
Waterman said the familiarity of Sanford with Villanova, its staff and Sheridan has been great.
“Their message to Nnanna was ‘now go win a state championship with your high school teammates and we’ll be waiting for you when that’s over,’ ” Waterman said.
The 2020-2021 Warriors are a team of players taking on larger roles and learning how to succeed in those roles. Other than Njoku, the only players on the roster who saw rotational minutes last year are Amin Johnson, Carter Ruby and Brandon Dwyer, whose roles were much smaller.
“It’s been tough with turnover of almost half of our roster,” Waterman said. “When half the team is new, you have to go back to basics.”
And Sanford has gone back to basics, with its players stepping into the familiar roles one sees with good basketball teams.
Amin Johnson has become the steady, unshakable point guard. Brandon Dwyer has found ways to get open and use his elite shooting ability. Carter Ruby seems to have taken on the “garbage man” role for the Warriors, hustling all over the floor, cleaning the boards and doing a little bit of everything.
Despite the roster turnover and dynamic shift, Sanford found a way to stay elite within the state by playing through Njoku. Sanford has asked Njoku to dominate games, something that head coach Stan Waterman says Njoku has had to work on.
“One of the nice things about Nnanna is that he plays the game unselfish,” Waterman continued. “But from day one we told him he has to be dominant for us to have a chance.”
The star big man has been, averaging more than 21 points per game despite teams trying to close the lane down and limit his space. He achieved the high school scoring gold standard, scoring his 1,000th point against Howard on Feb. 15.
With the regular season completed, this team looks to carry on a legacy of winning at Sanford that Njoku has spoken to.
Winning championship is more than a goal.
“ I mean for us it’s an expectation,” Njoku said. “We are known to be a team that always makes the post season, makes that run to the Final Four and championship.”
Sanford will play Thursday, March 4 with a 6:30 p.m. start against the winner of the St. Georges and Wilmington Friends game. Sanford went 2-0 vs Friends in the regular season with Njoku averaging 19.5 points in those games.