Darrrel Johnson high school basketball boys Patriot Pioneers

Junior forward Darrel Johnson (pictured from last year) had 11 points and seven rebounds in Monday’s 71-54 win against Unity Reed.

The starting lineup isn’t introduced over the loudspeaker, there are no fans and the players are wearing masks; but at the end of the game the scoreboard is still showing a Pioneers’ win.

The Patriot High School boys basketball team, which went 20-5 last year and 22-3 in 2019, is off and running again at 5-0, pandemic-restrictions and all.

Last week the three-time defending Cedar Run District regular season champions edged John Champe 79-74 in a showdown of the district’s expected championship contenders.

The Pioneers return seven players from last year, including starters Trey Nelson and Darrel Johnson, who coach Sherman Rivers credited for making clutch free throws in the Champe win.

Nelson is a 5-foot-11 senior point guard who had 24 points and seven assists against Champe, and 22 points and six assists in Monday’s 71-54 win against Unity Reed.

“He’s one of the better guards in the area. He’s a throwback in that he can find the open man and also score,” Rivers said.

Only a junior, the 6-4 Johnson was a second team all-Cedar Run District pick last year as a sophomore.

“He’s a matchup nightmare on the perimeter,” said Rivers, citing his versatility and powerful 210-pound frame. “He gets a lot of attention and is double- and triple-teamed.”

Also back is 6-0 senior guard Chad Watson, a deadly shooter who made 5-of-7 three-pointers in a 75-63 win over Garfield. 

Senior guard Ellis Nayeri “is a third-year varsity guy and a big energy guy who’s good on the glass,” Rivers said. Other contributors include 6-2 sophomore Jacarius Randall and 5-10 junior Mike Ackerman.

Elias Bakatsias is a 6-2 senior who has 14 points against Gar-Field and has emerged as a frequent starter. Junior Nick Marrero is another key player.

Like many teams, Patriot does not have a natural post player, but relies on a number of 6-2 players to handle various duties. “We do not have a true big guy. D.J. [Johnson] can play inside, he’s bigger, but to say he’s a post player is not fair to him,” Rivers said.

Patriot would have had 6-7 Tyler Stringer to help inside, but he transferred to a private school.

Nevertheless, Patriot looks primed and ready for another big year, especially after beating Champe, which returned two all-district first team players in twin guards Jalen and James Jasper. The Pioneers made their first Class 6 tournament appearance in 2019, falling to South County in the quarterfinals, and were ousted in the region semifinals by Massaponax 56-55 in 2020.

“In a year of indecision having a good amount of kids back is important to us,” said Rivers, in his fifth year with the program. Of the pandemic-related adjustments: “It’s not ideal, but in the worst case we would not play at all, and they kids do not want that.”

With no fans, Rivers said it’s easy to coach in the quiet gym: “They’re able to hear me, I’m loud enough.”

Due to the shorter season, Patriot will play just 13 games, with eight in the next 18 days. “It has its perks, there’s not as much practice time. As coaches we want to be able to practice,” Rivers said.

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