The Rams have left the Maryland Independent League in boys basketball after capturing the conference championship last season, their first league title since 2010.
WNA will face a grueling schedule designed to challenge a talented 12-player roster stocked with college prospects and featuring student-athletes from six different countries.
WNA's history helped bring Johnson to Colora. The last time West Nottingham embarked on this kind of challenge was 2001-03. Raphael Chillious, known as Ralph Carter when he played for the Rams before attending Lafayette College, coached the Rams against some of the nation's top teams before leaving for South Kent (Conn.). Former NBA player Josh Boone finished his high school career at WNA before playing at the University of Connecticut. Chillious is currently associate head coach at Eastern Carolina University following stints at Washington and UConn.
"The history of the program was a major attraction," Johnson said. "An opportunity to really rebuild something that was really good in the early 2000s. I'm a UConn fan so I'm coaching at a place where Josh Boone went to school. I knew of Raphael Chillious but I didn't really know him until I was inquiring about this job. It was a great opportunity, I thought."
Johnson came to WNA with the goal of rekindling the program's halcyon days. "At Lawrence and some of those places up north, it's like the best prep school basketball in the country" he said. "If you aren't going out and finding players, you aren't representing your program. To be honest, you're not going to be that good. We just kind of brought that mentality here to try to really bring in high quality student-athletes, guys who really want to buy in to what West Nottingham has to offer. And then do something with their basketball career, too. Get involved in the community. Play for a program that has a great history and get them looks from colleges. We had between 15-20 colleges in this fall at our open workouts."
Many of those coaches have favorable memories of previous trips to the scenic Colora campus.
"We represent the school in a very positive manner," said Johnson. "It definitely brings back some hype of West Nottingham Academy basketball. A lot of the college coaches who come back, they remember some of the things that are still here. In our dining hall, we have some of the flags from all the kids from different countries who have gone here. I think there's close to 70 flags and that's something they remember. So it's pretty cool to speak to people and they say, 'Where do you coach?' and I can say West Nottingham. They say, 'I remember Chillious. I remember Josh Boone. I remember the dining hall and all the flags.' To bring that kind of hype back is pretty cool."
WNA Head of School Dr. Thomas Banks says a good basketball team benefits the entire academy. "At the heart of an academic boarding school is student life and athletics, and at West Nottingham, the athletics program is essential to building school spirit," Dr. Banks said. "Our successful basketball program has brought a 'Friday Night bright lights' atmosphere to the campus."
Even though he has gone on to make a name for himself as a college assistant coach, Chillious still assists his alma mater. "Chillious has been a great friend, a great mentor to me," said Johnson. "When I was going through the whole hiring process, he was someone I spoke to a bunch about the place, how his experience was here. The people he was able to put me in contact with, he took care of us. He's highly respected in basketball. He's recruited some of the best kids in the nation. He's had some of the best prep school teams."
Johnson is more focused on creating positive experiences and opportunities for his players than being preoccupied with become one of the top teams in the nation. "I'm not going to worry about that," Johnson said. "We want to go out and put these kids in position to be successful and challenge themselves and I think the best way to do that is go out and play the best teams possible. See how good we are and see how hard we can work to get to a different level. Being the best in the country, yeah, that'd be awesome. That'd be really, really great for our school and our program, but I think for us to go to work every day and really work hard, and eventually achieve that, would be unbelievable."
In addition to six players from overseas (two from the Netherlands, one from the United Kingdom, and one each from Lithuania, Ukraine, and France), the Rams' roster includes six players from the mid-Atlantic region. Johnson says WNA will actively recruit student-athletes from anywhere, including Cecil County and Maryland, who are the right fit both academically and athletically.
"We need the whole package," Johnson said. "We want kids who are going to buy in to what West Nottingham has to offer. We want kids who are going to do well in the classroom, who are going to work outside the classroom, and be good citizens on campus, get involved in other things besides basketball."
WNA recently held two free basketball clinics for the community.
"It's really good for them to give back and be involved," said Johnson. "It provides a boost for our program, and also for them.
Tomiwa Sulaiman, a 6-6 junior small forward from the United Kingdom who previously played in Spain, is one of the most active basketball players on the WNA campus. "I do a lot of social activities," Sulaiman said. "I helped with the Halloween Zombie Academy. I've done service learning with the school. I'm in music. I've played in front of the school ... I like having fun. I like being part of the community. Basketball is a big part of my life, but I like to do more than just play basketball."
Sulaiman began playing basketball at the age of 11 "I've always wanted to play in America," he said. "This is the place where I feel like I can shine. It's a good way to get exposure in front of the biggest people and also play in front of the best people."
Sulaiman dreams of earning a scholarship to a top Division I program and believes WNA is the place to help him achieve that goal. "We play hard. We train hard," said Sulaiman. "And we're very serious about our education. They're helping me on the basketball side, pushing me to the next level."
Junior guard Jamie Bergens has already received a scholarship offer from Loyola.
Growing up in soccer-crazy the Netherlands, Bergens went against the grain.
"At a certain point, my dad said choose one sport and I played basketball and I fell in love with the game," Bergens said.
He also played in Spain prior to coming to WNA in February. "I wanted to go to the United States," said Bergens. "The basketball here is more exciting than it is in Europe. My former team, Amsterdam, played against West Nottingham, and I was looking for a school. Coach Johnson said I could come over."
Bergens likes attending school in this area. "It's been great," the hard-working lefty said. "It's close to almost every big city, Baltimore, Philadelphia. It's not even that far from New York. We're in good position to play everybody and be around great cities."
In order to take on such a challenging schedule, WNA dropped out of the MIL in boys basketball, but is still a member in other sports.
"The league's been great, very, very supportive," Johnson said. We're in it for the other teams. The league's been awesome. It's great group of guys involved with that league."
WNA will no longer face local rivals like Tome and Tri-State Christian Academy and instead play opponents from all over the eastern seaboard. "We're playing some of the best teams in the country this year," Johnson said. "We're going up to Westtown School. We're going up to St. Andrew's in Rhode Island for a tournament. We just got invited to play Ranney School (New Jersey), which has two of the Top 25 guards in the nation on their team. It will be a challenging schedule, but I think for us to go out and compete against those types of teams is only good for our program."
WNA won its opener, November 13 over Apollo Amsterdam and hosts Olympus Team 1 Saturday, November 17, at 3:30 p.m. There is no admission charge for home games.
One highlight of the home schedule is on Sunday, January 27, when several schools gather in Colora for the Great Atlantic Showcase.
"To be the best, you have to play against the best," Sulaiman said. "We play against some really tough competition here so it's going to give me a chance to compete to the best of my ability and showcase what I've got. I'm excited."
The Rams roster with name, height, weight, year, position, and hometown: Christian Flaherty 6-2, 160. Post grad. Guard. Takoma Park; Nick Ovchinnikoff 6-4, 190. Post grad. Guard. Congers, NY; Cartier Bowman 6-5, 180. Guard. Trenton, NJ; Mehdi Pissis 6-5, 190. Post grad. Guard. France; Justinas Leganovic 6-4, 170. Senior. Guard. Lithuania; Denys Bachurin 6-8, 190. Senior. Forward. Ukraine; Jamie Bergens 6-1, 165. Junior. Guard. Netherlands; Tomiwa Sulaiman 6-6, 185. Junior. Small forward. United Kingdom; Dennis Furman 6-10. Junior. Center. New York City; Jedy Cordilia 6-8, 210. Sophomore. Forward. Netherlands; Keyshaun Leslie 6-1, 180. Sophomore. Guard. New York City; Glenn Osemeha 6-0, 150. Sophomore. Guard. Newark, NJ.