Sunday, December 11, 2016

In Blake Francis, Wagner has a shooter with a point guard mentality

Blake Francis prior to shooting a free throw against Fairfield. (Photo by Jonathan Reyes/Daly Dose Of Hoops)

By Jonathan Reyes (@werdynerdy)

The Westfield Bulldogs of Chantilly, Virginia, lost the 6A state championship to the Colonial Forge Eagles of Stafford by the final of 47-46 to end the 2014-15 season. And although it may have been a disappointment, it helped give rise to the leadership of one of their own: then-junior guard Blake Francis.

Failing to capture the Virginia title, he felt an immediate sense of urgency to step up because of how far his team had made it without any of the satisfaction. Plus, he knew that in the following season, he’d be a graduating senior.

His coach at the time, Doug Ewell, placed the responsibility on Francis to relay the message to his teammates that now wasn’t the time to drift apart over losing one game, regardless of its importance. It was instead when they should come together to work toward satiating their ongoing hunger for their ultimate goal: winning it all.

“It was a learning experience from when we lost,” Francis said about what it was like for him to lose in the final game of the year. “And the thing was just to make it back the year after. That was my main focus, that’s why I tried to get my teammates to know that ‘we got to get back there because we don’t want to feel that feeling again.’ It was getting everyone on the same page.”

Ewell not only asked Francis to lead in the way he spoke, Ewell wanted him to do so by example on the court as well. And did he ever.

During the 2015-16 season, Francis put up 24 double-digit point displays, surpassed the 20-point mark 13 times, had four games of 25 or more points, and scored a career-high 32 points against the Battlefield Bobcats of Haymarket, Virginia on December 21, 2015. All of this culminated in the Bulldogs doing what they couldn’t accomplish a year prior: Being crowned state champs in their 74-56 win over the Oscar F. Smith Tigers of Chesapeake, thanks in large part to the leadership of Francis.

After graduating from Westfield, Francis wasn’t being recruited by many schools, so it appeared that his chances of playing basketball for the 2016-17 season were slim. But instead of sitting out a year without any form of education, he planned to attend prep school. As much as he didn’t want to have to do this, his parents; Carl and Wilhelmenia, and his older brother, Branden, made sure to tell him to be patient and positive throughout the process.

In order to continue looking toward his playing future, Francis and his parents went on an unofficial visit to Wagner College in Staten Island around the first week of August; where its head coach, Bashir Mason, was interested in recruiting Francis for the 2017-18 season.

“When I sat down with them on my visit, they told me, ‘You don’t need to change your game. Just come in and play how you play,’” Francis said about the trust he felt from the coaches. “I felt comfortable knowing they didn’t need me to be something else.”

Before Francis and his parents left campus, Mason offered Francis a chance at playing in the upcoming season. The unforeseen opportunity came up because Greg Senat, a senior forward on the team and two-sport athlete, was having his athletic scholarship moved from basketball over to football. Mason wasn’t planning on extending the open roster spot out to Francis, but he saw him as a player that could come in and help right away. Shortly after leaving the grounds, as they drove back home to Virginia, Carl called Mason and asked, “Hey, we’re giving 2016 serious consideration. What do we have to do to make that happen?” The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

“I don’t think it’s just me, I think it’s collectively the staff, my relationship with my staff I’ve had long before I became head coach,” Mason said when asked about how he’s able to land recruits like Francis. “The way we treat each other and the way we interact with one another is as family. When we get guys on campus, you get a sense of that vibe.”

“I’m older than Blake,” he added, “but I still listen to the same music as him and we probably have similar interests. So when there’s a guy who can teach you about the game that you really love and are passionate about, but then could also talk to you about other things that you have interest in and know about, then you feel that connection. And I’ve been able to use my youth in that way to get recruits like Blake.”

Through a handful of games with the Seahawks, Francis has played nothing like a freshman. He carries himself with oozing confidence dribbling up court, yelling out Mason’s sideline play calls from half court without hesitation. If he thinks he can do himself, he’ll pull up from the top of the three-point arc, step back and swish it through the basket, stunning fans and onlookers alike.

What’s more impressive, and can be overlooked by those not around the team enough, is how he takes fellow teammates like Connor Ferrell, Corey Henson and JoJo Cooper to the side in-game to give them a short pep talk to boost them up a bit. It’s similar to how Michael Carey, another Seahawk and a senior, goes about it with whoever the five men on the floor are between foul calls and inbound passes.

“You’ve got to give his family and past coaches credit,” Mason said in regard to Francis’s veteran-like demeanor as a freshman. “He’s a very serious young man, real focused and you can tell he comes from a lot of structure on and off the court.”

“That’s been able to help him and even more so, he didn’t get the summer under his belt; he didn’t show up until we started in the fall with the whole team,” he continued. “So he kind of got thrown into the fire, but because of his upbringing with his family and the coaching prior to getting here, he was a little bit more prepared than a normal freshman is.”

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