For Longwood Lancers, different roads all lead to Memphis

Published 12:39 am Friday, March 22, 2024

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They took pictures with students, hi-fived professors and police on Wednesday morning. Members of the Longwood Lancers then boarded the bus and prepared for a road trip to Memphis, one that’ll bring them to their chance at an NCAA Tournament upset, taking on the Houston Cougars Friday night. 

But the road to get here, and to develop a love of basketball overall, was different for some of these players, highlighting that we all come to the sport through unique ways. 

Making the switch 

For someone who drives the Lancers’ efforts on the court, it might come as a surprise that Walyn Napper’s first love wasn’t basketball. The 6’1 guard got started on the football field before a relocation turned him into a two-sport star. 

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“Originally, I’m from Alabama,” Napper said. “I played football at first, growing up. Then we moved to South Carolina when I was 10. There was a rec center just up the street from my house. I would go over there all the time and just shoot around. One time, I hit a half-court shot and a rec coach saw it. He asked if I wanted to come play for his team. And that’s how things got started.”

And over time, he developed a love for basketball. He was introduced to players like Allen Iverson and Kyrie Irving, guards that he started to pattern his own style of play after. And he became a LeBron James fan. 

“I respect his talent, his leadership, the way he knows the game,” Napper said. 

He played both sports at Ridge View High, earning 4A Player of the Year awards in basketball and football. On the football field, he still holds the school’s single season receiving records, with 85 receptions and 1,585 yards. But he was no slouch on the court either, scoring 1,093 points while setting school records for both career assists at 353 and steals at 172. 

Learning to play 

For Michael Christmas, a love of basketball goes all the way back to early childhood, when his dad set up the family’s first Little Tykes Easy Score. Christmas developed his style of play almost out of necessity, learning to compete with his brother. 

“Growing up in New Jersey, I used to play with my brother and some of his friends,” Christmas said. “I was big for my age but I was still the young guy, so they would elbow me and give me a hard time. But that’s helped me become the player I am today.” 

And when it comes to how he is on the court, Christmas says he’s tried to learn from a number of different competitors over the years. First, it was developing a physical style because he had to, as at that point, the 6’6 forward hadn’t fully grown yet and was going up against larger boys. Then as he went to high school, Christmas started picking up skills from the basketball games he watched on television. 

“My favorite player is LeBron James,” Christmas said. “I see his court vision and knowledge of what the opponent wants to do and I worked on that myself. In high school, I also modeled my game a little bit after Carmelo Anthony.” 

All of that translated into a unique skillset, one that helped his Virginia Beach high school to the regional title in 2017 and 2019, then to the state championship in 2019. It also earned Christmas Virginia Class 6 Player of the Year awards both times.

‘They instilled that love’ 

For DA Houston, basketball is a family affair. His cousin Kevin Houston suited up for Long Beach State, before playing professional ball overseas in France. 

His mom and dad also loved the sport, sharing that with DA and his four siblings. 

“My mom, my pops, they instilled that love,” Houston said. 

Through the years, that love of basketball turned into his own skillset, one that helped Houston lead Bellaire High to back-to-back Texas state title games, where they finished as runnerups. He was also named to the Texas All-State team as a senior.
Now in college, he’s added another skill to go along with his abilities on the court, one of being a leader. 

“I kinda grew in that aspect,” Houston said. “Normally, I’d usually be more of a lead by example kind of guy. I learned different ways of being vocal and being effective, especially over these past couple of months.” 

It was Houston, along with Christmas and Napper, that Longwood Head Coach Griff Aldrich singled out in his Big South Tournament press conferences. When asked how the team was able to make the run they did, he credited the seniors with taking control and leading the team. 

“I believe we’ve grown in maintaining that high standard we have for each other,” Houston said. “And we’ve been able to hold each other accountable. We call each other brothers and I feel like we really mean that. Being able to help each other reach that standard has been very special.” 

Longwood Lancers riding a hot streak 

Longwood comes in as one of the hottest teams in the South regional. The Lancers have won seven out of their last nine games en route to a third straight season of 20 or more wins. In addition, Aldrich has been named a finalist for the Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award, given out each year to a NCAA Division I coach that “exhibits strong moral character”, the award’s website says. Napper meanwhile has joined the 1,000-point club and the team has three players average double figures in scoring, with one more right on the cusp. In addition to Napper, Michael Christmas posts 11.5 points per game while Johnathan Massie chips in 11.4. Szymon Zapala adds 9.9 points per game. 

The team also shares a stat with their opponent. Houston and Longwood are currently tied for 10th in the nation, when it comes to offensive rebounding. For Longwood, the Lancers have been outrebounding opponents by more than nine rebounds per game, the fourth-biggest margin in the nation. Christmas leads the team at 6.2 rebounds per game and is one of three players averaging at least five boards per contest. 

When can I watch Longwood Lancers play? 

Tipoff is set for 9:20 p.m. EST and will air nationally on TNT and on national radio on Westwood One. Longwood’s radio call will be on WVHL FM 92.9 Kickin’ Country or on the Varsity Network App.