Former Wando teammates, coach still winning together

  • Monday, March 17, 2014

Former Wando standouts John Swinton and Eric Wagenlander earned a SoCon tournament championship and NCAA tournament bid with Wofford this season. PROVIDED

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The Wofford men's basketball players turned their phones off early the morning of the Southern Conference championship game as they began to mentally prepare.

Later that night, they turned them on as SoCon tournament champions. Hundreds of text messages, voicemails and alerts flooded the players' inboxes. Freshman Eric Wagenlander and junior John Swinton scrolled through their endless lists until one in particular caught both their attention.

Wando head coach David Eaton knows the feeling. Just three days earlier, Eaton led Wando to its first boys basketball state championship. The congratulatory messages rolled in by the hundreds, including a couple from Wagenlander and Swinton.

The two former Wando standouts followed every game of their high school alma mater's march toward a state title earlier this month. After Eaton won his championship, the former Wofford guard focused his attention on his two former Warriors, Wagenlander and Swinton, as they captured their SoCon tournament championship and an NCAA tournament berth.

“Coach Eaton's text stood right out to me,” Wagenlander said. “Typical Coach Eaton fashion, saying how proud and happy he was for us. It really means a lot.”

“It really is a special bond,” Eaton said. “Those guys still care and support their high school and I try to check on them to see how they're doing. The past week has been one of those times in life when everything is going right. It doesn't happen too often so you can't take it for granted.”

Wagenlander and Swinton helped Eaton find success early in his career. Wagenlander averaged seven points, five rebounds and four assists per game his senior season and won region titles in 2011 and 2012. Swinton was a four-year starter and averaged 12 points, six assists as a senior on the 2011 region championship team.

Swinton and Wagenlander met in middle school and were close friends by the time they joined Eaton's team. While battling injuries in high school, Wagenlander drew some of his strongest support from Swinton and Eaton. When it was time for Swinton to choose a college, Eaton sent a recommendation to his former coach, Wofford head coach Mike Young. Two years later, he did the same for Wagenlander.

“When I got the prospect reports from David, that's all I needed to know,” Young said. “I knew I could take that to the bank. They were well coached coming in. They understood what good defense looks like. They understood how you've got to play, how you've got to prepare and compete. More than anything, it's the intangibles the both of them already had coming into college.”

Young says having two college teammates from the same high school is rare, but with players like Wagenlander and Swinton it's easy. The two remain as close as ever, pushing each other in the classroom and on the court with the same focus that Eaton instilled in them early on.

“We have a really great friendship. We can joke around but still stay on top of each other and we're quick to make sure we're both doing our jobs,” Swinton said. “Coach Eaton had a big impact on both of our lives. I don't think we'd be doing what we're doing without him.”

Swinton plays a key defensive role off the bench for this season's Terriers team. Young describes him as one of the best defenders on the team and says if there's a late-game situation in the NCAA tournament and the Terriers need a stop, Swinton will be in.

Wagenlander's contributions come in practice and from the sidelines. He helps prepare the starting guards and provides a spark of energy and enthusiasm for the Terriers throughout the game. Young says he has progressed as well as any freshman and that his character, toughness and shooting give him a strong opportunity to see an increase in minutes.

Both players credit Eaton, assistant Chris Warzynski and Wando for much of their success on and off the court.

“I don't think I'd be where I am today without them,” Wagenladner said. “They did everything in their power to prepare me for this. They're my basketball coaches, but at the same time they've taught me life lessons that made me who I am.”

Eaton's season is over, but he still can't relax with Wofford now in the NCAA tournament. When the No. 15 seeded Terriers face No. 2 Michigan Thursday, he says there will be a different sense of pride watching his former players and team in the tournament. The same sense of pride Wagenladner and Swinton say they felt watching Wando win state.

“At first I was a little jealous to see them win a championship because I never got one,” Swinton joked. “But then proud at the same time. You feel like you had something to do with starting it. It just motivated me that much more.”

Eaton never got a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. Wagenlander and Swinton never got a chance to play for a state title. The three started winning together years ago and still continue to succeed together today. Ask any of the them, a win for one is a win for the others and together they're still accomplishing their goals.

“It's been kind of a surreal experience,” Wagenlander said. “It feels like it's coming full circle for all of us. It's funny how it worked out at the same time. We can all laugh together because we all have championship rings now.”

Frankie Mansfield, the sports reporter for the Moultrie News can be seen all around the state following teams to meets, games, and matches. For score updates, breaking sports news, and more follow @fjmansfield on Twitter

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