The little school that could: Websterville Baptist is playing for keeps
Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo Students at Websterville Baptist Christian School in Barre Town play basketball in the cramped confines of historic Collins Hall at the school on Friday.
EBSTERVILLE — They’re one of the smallest Vermont high schools whose athletic department is under the Vermont Principals’ Association umbrella, but they do basketball in a big way. And this year, Websterville Baptist Christian School is back to full strength.
The kindergarten-12th grade private school on the quiet hillside of Church Hill Road has just 40 students in grades 7-12 (140 in the entire school), and nearly all of them play basketball. The school has had cross-country, softball and soccer — including a co-ed Division IV team in the late 1990s and early 2000s — and is hoping to offer soccer again soon.
“It’s the best sport,” current boys coach Larry Morrison said with a confident laugh when asked recently why the school fields teams for just basketball. “We don’t have the numbers for anything else, we don’t have enough kids to field baseball teams and soccer teams, so we’ve always put our energy into basketball.”
The WBCS Warriors boys team grabbed the spotlight over the past few seasons with phenom guard Jordan Tillas and 1,500-point scorer and dominant shot-blocker Andrew Shuman. Shuman graduated last year after helping the Warriors to their seventh semifinal appearance at the Barre Auditorium. Tillas, along with his father and the team’s coach, Angelo Tillas, have since moved to Virginia, and coupled with the lack of a girls varsity program for the past five seasons, rumors flew of the looming end of the basketball program at the tiny Division IV school.
“No, that’s never been the case,” Morrison said.
In fact, the programs are back on the rise. A girls varsity team was fielded after a JV-only schedule last season and the boys team is back with junior Brady Orr shining in a new leadership role.
Through Thursday night, the boys are 2-9 with wins over Cabot School and Trinity Baptist, and the girls are 5-5 after a 3-1 start. The girls weathered a three-game losing streak and have now won two of their last three.
“With a young team like this, you’re going to have roller coasters,” said girls coach Kathleen Croteau, who has coached all levels of basketball, teaches at the school and whose husband, Bill, is the school administrator. “Whether it was good or not we started out on a high note and now we’ve gone over and we’re dipping. Hopefully we will go back up the other side very soon.”
Because the school is so small, the teams are allowed to include eighth graders on the varsity rosters. The Warriors wouldn’t survive without such an exception from the VPA.
“If you have less than 50 students in the high school, they can automatically play up,” Croteau explained. “Prior to that you would petition the VPA and give them your numbers and explain that without these eighth graders, you’d have less than 10 (players). I have nine with two eighth graders and Larry has three eighth graders and a total of 10 players.”
The exception is a double-edged sword, however. It gets younger players experience playing at the varsity level to keep the program alive and also with the hope of being that much more of a leader come the student’s junior and senior seasons, but that’s only if the younger players are able to get in the game in the first place.
“I petitioned to get six eighth-grade games to let them play a whole game,” Morrison said of his youngest players, one of whom is his son, Wyatt. “But they didn’t let us. Now we have a few not getting any playing time, but at this point we have no choice.”
The girls team made it to the Aud just once — in 1998 when they lost to Wilmington (now Twin Valley) 61-46 — and were last in the state tournament in 2003, 10 years after the Warriors made their first postseason appearance.
The boys lost to Danville 71-68 last winter in the Division IV semifinals and have made two finals appearances: 2009 in a loss to Proctor and 1996 in a loss to Twinfield. The boys first played in the state tournament in 1991.
Both Croteau and Morrison think the Aud can host the royal blue-and-yellow-clad throngs of fans again sooner rather than later.
“This year, because our school is so small, they have to play up,” Morrison said. “We have a good group of kids going forward, and to be honest, I think we’ll go to the Aud next year.”
“I’ve told the girls a similar thing,” Croteau added. “I’ve said in two years, knowing that the girls who are in eighth and ninth grade, all of the Division IV teams they played in junior high they beat and they actually beat a couple of Division III teams. If they keep working, I’m expecting us to be at the Aud in a couple years.”
At first glance it might be a lofty goal for a school that doesn’t have its own regulation-sized gym, which forces before-dawn practices at Spaulding High School.
“We’re there from 5:30-7:10 in the morning,” Croteau said. “It was funny during vacation seeing the (Spaulding) teams come in, about 8:45 they’d start wandering in and they’d be half-asleep. We’d be like, ‘Hey, this is truly vacation for us, we don’t have to come in until 7! You guys aren’t even awake yet!’ They looked at us like we were crazy.”
“The kids are willing to do it if they really want to play, and our kids want to play,” Morrison said.
With student-athletes coming to WBCS from as far away as Waterbury and St. Johnsbury and as close as Barre, Northfield and Calais, and many without a driver’s license, the self-funded program depends heavily on parents and coaches, who are all unpaid volunteers.
“The high school wouldn’t work without parents,” Croteau said.
But since the program’s founding in the late 1970s by Jay Ransom and continued oversight by longtime athletic director Virginia Collins, the pieces have been quietly nurtured for a big small-town success story.
“It started with Jay,” Morrison said.
Ransom took the Warriors to four semifinals and coached both his sons to the state finals. Morrison’s father, Paul, was also instrumental in the birth and growth of the youth program.
“He knew that the teams that have good (varsity) teams, it’s about the feeder program,” Morrison said. “Williamstown’s feeder program is fantastic (the Blue Devil boys are undefeated and aiming for their third title in four years). Spaulding’s losing right now because their feeder program is awful. Until they change that, they’re going to get the same thing every year. We take kids from the second grade and develop them, trying to make them better basketball players, and we get two or three who are really good. And in Division IV, that’s all you need to compete.”
Morrison’s seventh- and eighth-grade team last season went 28-8, losing primarily in out-of-state AAU competition.
And the beginning of the WBCS basketball program is as humble as Collins Hall, the converted second-floor former grange hall “gym” still in use today.
“That’s what’s made our youth program what it is,” Morrison said of the tiny space with angled ceilings barely higher than the 10-foot backboards placed no more than a traditional half-court’s length apart.
“It will absolutely shock you. We taught our kids fundamentals up there, how to make layups and make them fast. We used to run a drill with two teams and we’d run a layup race, the first team to 20. They would go as fast as they could back and forth, and when we got to a court we could make our layups.”
And basketball is not just about the hoop and the orange ball at WBCS.
“Believe it or not, the success of the basketball team has a big impact on the school,” Morrison said. “If the basketball program is doing well, the (enrollment) numbers are higher. When it’s not doing very well, it seems to drop off.”
Perhaps the most noticable aspect of the basketball program at WBCS can be seen in the hallway at Spaulding before and during each home game: the concession table featuring a sea of crockpots, cookies and pies all provided by families at the school.
“For us it develops a community,” Croteau said. “Where do you go on Saturday nights? You go down to Spaulding, have your crockpot hotdog dinners and homebaked desserts. People will come and watch our games because they want to eat.”
In an age of the latest technology for statistics-keeping, scheduling, equipment, uniforms and travel, WBCS makes it work without most of those things.
“It’s proof you don’t have to have millions of dollars to be successful, and we’ve done that,” Bill Croteau said. “The coaches, parents and students all buy into that.”
The Warriors host Concord on Feb. 9 at 5 and 6:30 p.m.
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