As Elmont’s winning streak grew, so did the length of coach George Holub’s beard.
Because of a summer gesture that served as a challenge to his Spartans, Holub happily resembled a Duck Dynasty character by the time Elmont’s historic season was over. The team rode a 14-game winning streak to the school’s first boys basketball Long Island and state Class A championships before finally losing in the finals of the Federation Tournament of Champions.
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The Spartans’ aggressive 2-3 zone defense and share-the-wealth offense were the main story lines. The beard was just a visual that his players and the town’s vocal supporters embraced all throughout the journey, often shouting “Fear the beard!” during joyous celebrations at the various championship venues.
“It’s not about me. It’s not about the beard. It’s about these kids. I love this group,” Holub said. “It was just a superstition. I started growing it in the middle of August after we lost our summer league championship game to Baldwin. They wrecked us. I was so upset at how we played that I said, ‘Look, they’re a great team, but we’re a great team, too. I’m not shaving until we do something special.’ That’s how it started.”
By December, Holub’s salt-and-pepper beard gave him a vague resemblance to the holiday season’s main character, something not lost on the team. “I dressed up as Santa Claus for a charity Christmas party. One of my players handed out candy to the kids wearing reindeer antlers. We took a team picture and that became the team Christmas card,” he said.
It turned out to be a gift that kept on giving. All-Long Island guard Travis Morgan-Robinson averaged 17 points a game and was a ballhawk at the top of the zone, igniting Elmont’s transition game with his many steals. Wing man Jalen Burgess averaged 13 points but was the team’s best shooter in March, earning tournament MVP honors for his 19 points in the state-title game victory over Troy.
Sophomore K.C. Ndefo, he of the antler outfit, emerged as a star-on-the rise with his exceptional shot-blocking skills at the back of the zone and an improved touch around the basket. He blocked eight shots in a double-overtime victory over South Side for the Nassau championship and was a shot-deterrent when the Spartans shut out Harborfields in the fourth quarter of a 41-32 victory in the Long Island championship game.
Guard Yasir Lawrence was the team’s fourth double-digit scorer and guards Victor Olawoye and Darius Celestin made key contributions in the championship run that included seven elimination games plus the Federation tournament.
“I knew they were special by their summer work,” Holub said. “They were very receptive. The coaches would make an adjustment and the kids would pick it up. It was a whole team thing.”
The zone was a departure from Holub’s preferred defense. “It’s not my first love. I’ve been a man-to-man guy my entire life,” Holub said. “But these guys are long. So I figured we might as well make use of it. That’s what the game is about. If you finally find something that works, then great.”
The zone stayed. The beard stayed. For now. “It’ll be trimmed for next year,” Holub said.
But the memories of the 2015-16 season will never stop growing.