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Ridin’ the Pine column: Fauquier may never again see such a great group of players

Monday, Jan. 20 | By Jeff Malmgren

James Madison's Jazmon Gwathmey is one of four Fauquier County products currentlyl playing NCAA Division I basketball. --Courtesy photo/JMU Athletics
I've developed an elaborate scientific equation to determine which counties across the country are hotbeds of basketball talent.

Fauquier County ranks pretty well, per capita.

Fine, it's not a scientific equation at all: multiple high school graduates from a county, now playing college games on an ESPN outlet = talent hotbed. But, I think it’s a telling barometer.

Odds are, if you turn on ESPN3 or ESPNU regularly each week, you'll likely see a Fauquier product on the court. It's pretty remarkable, actually, that a county with a rural population and only three public and two private high schools has produced four athletes currently playing NCAA Division I basketball.

In its history, Fauquier County can only claim a handful of D-I basketball players, but it currently has Jerrelle Benimon playing at Towson, Jazmon Gwathmey at James Madison, Liz Wood at Maine and Emily Granruth at Niagara.

I've seen three of the four play in televised games this season, mostly on ESPN3 (which, incidentally, is a great platform for women's basketball fans like me). And their games aren't just broadcast, the broadcasters sing the praises of those Fauquier County products.

Gwathmey, a redshirt sophomore, makes announcers quick to say she is one of the most talented players JMU has had during the past 10 years. That's surrogate-speak for Dukes coach Kenny Brooks, who often recites that refrain.

Meanwhile, many announcers of America East games rave about Wood as not only the foundation of the Black Bears, but also as one of the unique talents in the conference – a sharpshooter who can also attack off the dribble and score in the paint, not to mention defend every inch of the floor. All that's easy to see on a TV/computer screen, too.

Granruth has only played 13 minutes thus far this season, but she’s also only a true freshman.

Then there's Benimon, who a lot of basketball talking heads consider one of the premier "mid major" players in the nation.

He's been compared to Carmelo Anthony, a la the 2003 national champion Syracuse team, and Temple coach Fran Dunphy said the Towson senior has a good chance to play in the NBA next season.

I can't say I saw that coming – not when Benimon was wasting away for two years at Georgetown, nor when he was a consistent triple-double threat at Fauquier.

Nearly eight years ago, I played occasional pickup games against Benimon, when he was a rising sophomore at Fauquier. He clearly had potential, but was little more than the tallest player on the court still trying to acclimate to his new 6-foot-4 frame.

These days, I wouldn't set foot on a court with Benimon for fear of playing the role of Kris Humphries to his Blake Griffin.

It's pretty incredible how well Benimon's developed.

He had a versatile skill set in high school, and dominated as a junior and senior, but he never seemed to master any one skill. Now, though, he has an impeccable turnaround jumper in the paint, and he can drive past nearly all post defenders who try to guard him on the perimeter.

Now that he stands 6-8, the versatility he developed at Fauquier is an even greater asset, and pretty unique. Benimon often eliminates the need for an outlet man at Towson, especially useful since the Tigers lost their starting point guard to suspension and then transfer.

Not only is Benimon the nation's leading returning rebounder, once he grabs a defensive rebound he frequently puts the ball on the floor and leads a fastbreak.

So it’s no surprise that Benimon recently recorded the first triple-double in Towson history and was on the 50-person preseason watch list for the Naismith Trophy, given to the D-I player of the year.

Anyway, all the recent praise heaped upon local products equates to a great reason to watch college basketball this season. Not to mention that Towson, James Madison and maybe even Maine will contend for NCAA tournament berths.

Fauquier County will likely never see a group of basketball players like this ever again.

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