In bright yellow uniforms with “Wilson” across their chest, the Warren Wilson College Owls looked like a different team in their 98-96 win over Columbia International University on Senior Night Feb. 18.
The five seniors were the only players with their names on the back of the jerseys. The special uniforms cemented a new identity for the Owls as a team with a defense that creates chaos for opponents.
The steady rotation of athletic guards for Warren Wilson was intensefor CIU. Disrupting opponents the past 12 games has been exactly what the Owls have done, closing out the regular season with 10 wins in that span.
Warren Wilson head coach Anthony Barringer has emphasized a high-energy style of defense in his first year on the sideline for the team. The strategy has the Owls ranked fifth in the USCAA D-II standings, with the league scheduled to announce postseason bids on Feb. 24 (after press deadline). The Owls are a virtual lock to return to the postseason for the fifth time in as many years.
A championship would be nothing new for the young coach, who won it all with the Owls in 2013 when four of the seniors on the team’s current roster were freshmen.
Returning to the final game is “the expectation more than the goal,” Barringer said. “Guys on this team have a taste of what winning a national championship feels like, but they want to win one when they are ‘the guys’ rather than the role players.”
The bond that Barringer developed with his former team during the 2013 run to the top is part of what makes this season so special, he said.
“I went through it with those four guys (Justin Gonyea, Chris Dillard, Danilo Radonjic and Tyler Triplett) when they were freshmen,” he said. “I hosted three of them on their visits, and I told all of their parents that if they came here, I would make sure to take care of them as long as I was here.”
Barringer was emotional as he addressed his senior players during halftime of the team’s win over Columbia International, a team that the Owls have now beaten five straight times dating back to 2014.
“All of that emotion wasn’t even about the game,” he said. “We could have lost by 50, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The whole thing was about me being able to keep a promise to guys that are like my little brothers.”
There was drama to spare in the final seconds of the game on Senior Night. Senior Justin Gonyea, one of the school’s all-time leading scorers, hit a jump shot from the right side of the floor to win the game in the final seconds. The shot put an exclamation point on the legacy of one of the program’s best players ever, according to Barringer.
“In my personal opinion, Justin is the best player in this school’s history,” he said. “I mean you watched him. He was the only player I even considered taking that shot.”
Now the Owls face the task of preparing for the postseason, something they have done for each of the last five seasons. But Barringer feels that this year’s team is capable of bringing the school its second national championship.
“I know that there is not a team in our league that works as hard as we do, day-to-day. I know that there is not a team in our league that is deeper,” he said. “I just don’t feel like we’re going to lose.”But in order for the Owls to follow through on their coach’s expectations, they will need to continue to be aggressive on the defensive side of the ball and create chaos for opponents.
“It’s the same thing I’ve been saying all year - we have to defend,” he said. “If we don’t defend the way we did the last two possessions against CIU, we lose. You won’t outscore teams every night on the offensive side of the ball. You will have to get stops to get layups. We haven’t been great defensively, but we’ve learned how to win close games.”