BY JAMIR WILSON
Everyone in the conference has their eye on the Salisbury men’s basketball team every time they step onto the court. This season, as the defending Capital Athletic Conference champions, it makes it vitally important for players to rise to the occasion and raise their level of play.
Justin Witmer has stepped up to the plate and is leading the Gulls by example.
“The big thing was trying to not be complacent. We know we have a target on our back after winning a championship, so everyone is going to give us their best shot,” Witmer said.
An all-CAC First Team performer in 2014-2015, his love for basketball started very early.
“My dad was my sister’s AAU coach, so I would always go to the practices and would be on the side shooting and wouldn’t stop for the whole two hours,” he said.
Witmer is no stranger to success in his basketball career. At Magruder High School he reached the state championship his final two seasons, winning the title his junior year and losing a close one in his senior season.
He has been an exceptional free throw shooter, making it surprising when he only shot 65 percent from the line as a freshmen.
“Back in high school I still hold the record for consecutive free throws made at Magruder, so that was a big accomplishment for me,” Witmer said. “Probably a lack of focus, I didn’t really stay after and shoot like I usually did at high school, but recently I’ve been getting after it.”
Two of Witmer’s teammates, Gordon Jeter and Kyle Savercool believe Witmer is a unique player and person when it comes to practice, games and celebrations.
“Last year we liked to celebrate our wins and we would wait for the coach to get in the locker room and we’d pretend like we weren’t hype, and Justin would be hiding somewhere and he would pop out and go nuts and the whole team would get hype,” Savercool said. “We were at a tournament it was Randolph Macon, and he hid inside of a couch so coach gets in and we were all looking around like when is he going to pop out, and all of a sudden you just see him burst out, the cushions flying everywhere and he just gets hype. It’s contagious the whole team feeds off of it.”
It’s moments like that which shows the type of energy and spark Witmer brings to the team on and off the court.
The six-foot-three guard from Gaithersburg, Maryland has developed into a leader that his teammates and coaches can depend on. Head coach Andrew Sachs, who has only known Witmer for a short few months knows he can call on him when bringing the team together.
“I think he does a great job in the locker room keeping the guys together. We’ve had three loses this year, and these guys have responded from all three very well which tells me a lot about their character and I think a lot of that comes from him,” Sachs said.
Savercool, a senior who has played with Witmer the past three years has seen the growth and leadership Witmer has displayed.
“I would say he leads more by example, he shows us every day what needs to be done and we follow his lead,” Savercool said.
Sachs has been impressed not only with Witmer’s play this season, but also his character explaining that when times are tough, Witmer is always around to boost his teammate’s spirits.
“If I get on a guy or a guy is having a bad day he’ll pull him off and try to help them out and talk to him in the locker room,” Sachs said.
The Sea Gulls have won six out of their last seven games and are currently second in the conference standings looking to piece together another championship run. Witmer and his teammates believe the sky is the limit for their team and there are no plans of slowing down or settling for anything less than greatness.
“I think (we aim for) nothing less than getting back to the NCAA tournament, and getting further than we did last year,” Witmer said.
What has surprised many is Witmer’s path to the collegiate level. He graduated high school at sixteen-years-old, and as a nineteen-year-old junior, many think Witmer is wise beyond his years.
“Well, in kindergarten, halfway through they pushed me up to the first grade, so I was the second kid in my elementary school to ever do that. Growing up with older guys my whole life really just kind of mentally put me at their state like I don’t even think of myself as young compared to them,” Witmer said.
Despite Witmer’s college career coming to an end at the completion of the 2017 season, Sachs still expects his junior guard to improve every game and every season.
“You want guys to get better every year, we have to get him better with doing more things than just shooting the ball, he does a great job of getting to the rim, he’s gotten deflections for us, his rebounding has improved from last season, so we’ve asked the guys to do a lot more than they usually do,” Sachs said.
With another conference championship ring in their plans, Witmer continues to play a key role in making that goal a reality.