Pennsylvania’s Bradford Eagles arrived in Newtown on Saturday for an opening night that promised a deep run into the national youth basketball championships next week.
The team from upstate New York has taken a similar path.
The Eagles won the N.B.A. contest from the Pennsylvania league in 2012, and came within one game of winning a title a year later. They got to Westchester last year only to lose in the championship game to New York’s Schuylerville, and they came into this weekend’s tournament at end of September with a 27-game winning streak.
This season, the Eagles will be chasing their second WNBLA title in the 31-year history of the tournament.
Heading into the season, their lineup included in-state natives like Christian Antrican, Landon Porter and Luther Agzebe from Utica, Jake Donnelly from Schenectady and Ethan Lee and Shane Turner from Wilkes-Barre. The title run will be front and center, but it won’t be the primary focus.
“Our players have too much work to put in and we have too much pride to give up,” head coach Billy Eads said. “We are working as hard as we can to get the best team we can.”
Eads came to Bradford five years ago after establishing the Thunder and Lightning leagues in western New York. The high school games were played in Cazenovia and the AAU games were played in Lackawanna. As coaches at Bradford, Eads and his assistants had to take kids out of each league in order to participate in this tournament.
“My wife’s family from Pennsylvania are pretty tight with the Bethlehem Warhawks youth basketball teams,” Eads said. “I went to their tournament as an adult last year and was pretty impressed with what they had to offer. A handful of our guys took it up and played.”
Eads held a tryout tournament last week, and the Eagles won that competition, too.
That got them here.
They are joined by powerhouse Essex Town, which has won five of the past six national championships in the U-16 age division. Smithtown and Rockville Centre, each of which has won seven titles, will also be in action along with Schuylerville, Lockport, Manhattan, Warwick, Del., and state finalists from Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland, Springfield, Massachusetts, Southeast Vermont and Taylor, Pennsylvania.
The 24 regional teams, which range from 15 to 15-year-olds, play through Saturday night and may make a late run into the round of 16 before a NorCal team moves on to the final eight.
Eads had a preseason scrimmage against the Eagles team and they beat him and his group soundly, 69-55. He figured he would need to adjust his offensive style for the tournament, knowing that his team was willing to deal with physical play. The Eagles seemed to already have learned from their lack of aggressiveness in the championship game two years ago, and last year’s game was closer.
Then they ran away with it in the summer.
“We’re both playing very well and staying level-headed,” Eads said. “We love to compete, and I’m sure it’s getting old to these guys playing through pain.”
Three of their scorers will be back, including Tasha Bainbridge and Kytia Pearson, both of whom took part in the national championship team in 2012. Pearson was a member of the team that won the championship from 2014-17, and she was on the title team this year.
It took them a while to convince the players to come to the tournament. Bainbridge, who wore out her welcome at Bradford this year, showed up for one practice and told the girls that she didn’t care if they lost, because they won together.
“To come so close to the title two years ago we were excited to finally be back,” added Melanie Robinson, a 21-year-old senior who has been on five championship teams since high school. “We’re more experienced and definitely playing with a lot of confidence.”
The tradition of Bradford Eagles success in the WNBLA may be over the top, but it is something that the team takes seriously.
“If we keep pushing it and keep pushing the right buttons,” Eads said, “we can get some hardware this weekend.”