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Sanford Girls Basketball Shoots for No Losses

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This time, it’s going to be different for Sanford School’s girls basketball. Of course, a lot of teams vow that before every season. Things will change. The old ways are gone. But listening to the three junior Warrior stalwarts makes it impossible to believe anything else. They will make sure 2014-15 is better than last season. And that can mean only one thing: No losses. The Warriors went 23-1 last year. Captured the state title. Their championship game win, over St. Elizabeth, avenged the only blemish, suffered in the second game of the year. “That was a game we shouldn’t have lost,” junior guard Chris Alston says. “We beat them [in the championship game] … At the start of this season, we’re going to be ready.”

It’s not hard to imagine other players throughout the state listening to Alston and her teammates grouse about a single defeat and sneering—or worse. How dare members of a team that has won three of the last five state titles, 10 straight conference championships and 80 consecutive league games complain about losing one stinking game? “We’re Sanford,” Alston says, shrugging. Watching Alston and her teammates, Taylor Sparks-Faulkner and Taylor Samuels, at ease on an office couch on a gray October afternoon, one would have trouble imagining them as the engine room of an avaricious, defensive-minded team that seeks to pitch a shutout every game, as ridiculous as that might seem. In last March’s title win over St. E’s, the Warriors forced 19 turnovers in 32 minutes and turned an early 10-2 deficit into a 58-37 runaway. Their calm banter and requests to speak longer, the better to miss more class, belie an approach to basketball born of superior conditioning and a tradition of success that fuels high expectations, even if they seem a little outlandish. In 10 years under coach Marcus Thompson, himself a Sanford “lifer” who played ball at Brown, Sanford has gone 193-46 and captured state crowns in 2010, ’11 and last season. Thompson has had more than 20 players move on to Division I schools and 30-plus play at other collegiate levels.

Last year’s standout, Alison Lewis, is a freshman at Providence College. Alston already has “16 or 17” Division I basketball offers, and Sparks-Faulkner and Samuels are attracting attention, too. “We work hard and expect to do well,” Thompson says. The Warriors win by emphasizing defense. “If we can stop them from scoring, we don’t have to score much,” Samuels says. Their practices prepare them to create the type of full-court mayhem Thompson prefers. The players nod wearily as they describe the defensive shuttle drill they perform “every day” in practice. They wince while describing the sprint ladder Thompson demands at each practice: Six lengths of the court forward, four backward and six more forward, in under 1:55. Before the playoffs, the time is cut to 1:50. “We’ll do something good in practice, and we still have to run,” Alston says. “Even when we make the foul shots we’re supposed to, and we think we don’t have to run, [Thompson] will say, ‘Good job. Now run.’”

Sanford seems something of an unusual place for a basketball powerhouse. Its bucolic campus sits in Hockessin, not exactly a hotbed for youth hoops talent. But thanks to the success Thompson has created, top players from around Delaware—and neighboring states—are drawn to the school. Sparks-Faulkner spent a year at Tatnall School before switching to Sanford. She lives in Newark, plays AAU club basketball in Philadelphia and likes the teachers and community at Sanford. “They care about us learning,” she says. Samuels, meanwhile, hails from Elkton and remembers her mother telling her in sixth grade that she would be attending an independent high school. Because her cousin, A.J. Jackson, had a positive experience at Sanford, she decided to attend there, as well. Alston’s mother, Keisha, wanted her challenged academically, so they looked at Sanford after a former Warrior player (Andrea Hines) spoke glowingly of the school and Thompson. “I have loved it since I set foot on campus,” Alston says. “It’s open, and there is a lot of freedom. People are more trusting here than at other schools.”

Alston averaged 14.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game last year and figures to be the catalyst on this year’s squad. The 5-foot, 6-inch guard has an obvious confidence and the ability to encourage her teammates to work harder and produce more in game situations. The Warriors want to control tempo, force the action and overwhelm teams, and Alston has the perfect personality and abundant athletic ability to make that happen. “She is special,” Thompson says. “She knows our system and is now starting to pick up leadership skills. Her personality is aggressive and attacking.” It took a while for Sparks-Faulkner to acclimate to the Warrior Way. Her game began developing at Tatnall, but she was unprepared last year for Thompson’s demanding practices. A quiet 6-1 pivot with a broad smile, she became more comfortable as the year progressed and figures to be a formidable interior presence this season. “She’s one of the strongest players we have on the team,” Thompson says. “She finishes well inside and can get up and down the court well for her size.” Samuels is a versatile, 5-9 wing who does just about everything on the court and has begun to attract the attention of bigger colleges. By the time this season is over, she’ll be in high demand. That’s how it works at Sanford. It’s a continuum. While players like Lewis take their star turns, the younger girls grow until it’s their turn to blossom.

Thompson has created a program that is a magnet for good players with interests in a demanding academic program. His many contacts throughout the collegiate, prep and AAU basketball worlds allow him to sustain success and create opportunities for his players. A supervisor in the Delaware Department of Probation and Parole, Thompson is intense during practices and games. “He is a very animated guy,” Sparks-Faulkner says. “He can be intimidating at times, but he’s a great coach.” The girls insist that he cares about them when the ball stops bouncing. “He is really relaxed when he’s not on the court,” Samuels says. It’s easy to be laid back when your team is the scourge of the state and has built the kind of momentum that ensures future success.

The Warriors will be tested by a couple of tough non-league games this year, against St. Francis of Baltimore and suburban Philadelphia stalwart Bonner-Prendergast. As long as the girls continue to play the Sanford way, they will be just fine. Hard work and success breed a confidence in the players. How confident are they? Well, when Sparks-Faulkner, Samuels and Alston were asked if they could take the 6-4 Thompson in a one-on-one game, Alston spoke up quickly. “I could beat him,” she said, forgetting about the 10-inch size difference between the two. “I’d post him up [inside]. Somehow, I’d find a way.” Don’t bet against her. She has put in too much time and effort to lose—just like the rest of the Warriors. 


Photo by Joe Del Tufo
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Sanford coach Marcus Thompson, along with juniors (from left) Taylor Sparks-Faulkner, Chris Alston and Taylor Samuels, are aiming for perfection.

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