Men’s Basketball to Play First Home Game in School History

The Mary Baldwin men’s basketball team will make school history when it squares off against Ferrum College in the Physical Activities Center on Nov. 20. The contest will be the first home game of the squad’s inaugural season.

Head coach Matt Griggs says his men are excited to showcase their skills. Some players were able to compete essentially as a club team in 2020, playing in a handful of scrimmages and unofficial exhibition matches. But now it’s the real deal.

“We attended women’s games last year and were impressed by the atmosphere of support,” said Griggs. “Our goal is to play high-energy, high-quality basketball and keep the crowd engaged so we can capitalize on that home court advantage.”

Team captain Jaden Ignacio playing defense against Gettysburg College at the season’s opening game.

The environment could bring a welcome boost, as the team is very young — it features just one upperclassman. That means Griggs will look to sophomore captains Jayden Ignacio, Quinten Hart, Tyler Thomas, and Vernon Fraley to fill big shoes as leaders. The latter was named the Big South Rookie of the Week on Nov. 15 and made the all-tournament team at the Gettysburg Tip-Off Tournament the weekend before.

“Luckily, these four guys are incredibly mature for their age,” said Griggs. They work hard on the court and in the classroom, have great attitudes, and exude positivity. “They’ve really stepped up and set the bar for our freshmen.” 

The positive team culture is crucial for a new program. It helps players bond as a unit, increases academic performance and retention, and sets the stage for successful recruiting. 

“We don’t have the luxury of being able to point to an established track record of success,” said Griggs. “But we can say we have an awesome family of guys that are passionate about pushing one another to play at the highest level possible.”

Captain Vernon Hart agrees: The atmosphere is what brought him to MBU.

“To me, this is a school that brings everyone together and creates a family culture that really makes it feel like home,” he said.  

Throw in a beautiful campus in one of America’s most celebrated small towns, new athletics facilities, caring professors, and a topnotch educational environment, and the sell gets much easier.   

The new team is young, but it’s led by four strong captains. Tyler Thomas says: “We worked really hard in the off-season and are ready to take a huge step this season. Building this program from scratch is something we’re all excited for and are ready to get started on.”

This season will mark Griggs’ first as a head coach. The 31-year-old was a standout guard at Centre College in Kentucky and took a job as an assistant with Winthrop University’s hoops program after graduating. He held the post for three years then went to Roanoke College, where he was soon promoted to associate head coach. The challenge and allure of building a program from scratch brought him to MBU. 

“On one hand, you’re at a deficit, because you’re coming into a situation where there’s no existing team culture, and your players are totally inexperienced,” said Griggs. But then again, “that means you can mold the kind of program you want from the very beginning.”  

To do that, Griggs relies on what he calls the ABC’s: Academics, Basketball, and Character. Standards within each category are used to evaluate recruits for their abilities and personalities upfront. And they inform training regimens for the next four years.   

“We’re looking at more than just skills,” said Griggs. “We want players that have a really strong work ethic, and a team mentality. They should be fun to be around and work with, and put school first. Those are the traits that are going to take a team to the next level.”  

The men’s basketball team builds character and boosts civic awareness by helping sustainability nonprofit Shenandoah Green plant legacy trees in Staunton.

The approach seems to be working. The men scored 78 points against Division I powerhouse Winthrop University in an early Nov. exhibition — and kept the score to within 10 points for most of the game. That’s impressive because Winthrop won the Big South conference title and appeared in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. 

“Our main objective was to win the respect of their players, coaches, and fans by playing fearlessly and together,” said Griggs.

Postgame congratulations made it clear they’d done just that. For instance, the performance left attending Rock Hill Herald sports reporter Brian Wilmer raving: “Pretty great effort from the Fighting Squirrels, especially for their first-ever game,” he wrote in a Tweet. “They could really do some things at the D3 level.”

Griggs calls winning that praise no small feat.

“To play so well against a team of that caliber,”  he said, “I was very, very proud of our guys.”   

The success brought a big boost in confidence. The team hopes to use the momentum to build a foundation for the future. 

“The main thing for us moving forward is to focus on playing smart and getting better,” said Griggs. If the young team is strategic and caters to its talents, it will be competitive. If players use the season to gain experience and create good habits on and off the court, “that’s going to pay big dividends down the road.”

Left: Freshman guard Darryl Williams Jr. gathers a rebound; he hails from Yokosuka, Japan. Right: The team posing for a photo before the opening game of the 2021 season.

FOR MORE Info, Game Schedules, and Updates: Follow the team on Twitter, Instagram, or visit their webpage.