By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — One hundred meters up, the hill at Washington Park leveled off, granting the players a respite before the next round of pain.

“How many is that?” guard Jeff Jones asked when he caught his breath.

“You don’t need to know, Jeff,” assistant coach Ron Sanchez responded good-naturedly. “Just keep running.”

No matter the sport, the off-season is the time when strength-and-conditioning coaches at UVa wield the most influence, and Mike Curtis has stayed busy since returning to his alma mater in early June.

Curtis, a former men’s basketball player at Virginia, is charged with getting Tony Bennett’s team fit for the coming season. To do so, Curtis employs a variety of drills and workouts, many of them grueling.

As clouds gathered over the city on a recent afternoon, a UVa-owned bus turned left from Preston Avenue into the Washington Park parking lot. Thirteen players debarked.

The park’s features include basketball courts and a softball diamond. There’s also an imposing hill, at the foot of which Curtis convened his charges, 100 meters from the finish line.

They split into three groups. In the first were Jones, Jontel Evans, Sammy Zeglinski and Mustapha Farrakhan. In the second were Sylven Landesberg, Tristan Spurlock, Thomas Kody, Mike Scott and Solomon Tat.

The third group comprised Assane Sene, Will Sherrill, Jerome Meyinsse, Jamil Tucker and tireless manager Tom Jonke. (Absent was senior guard Calvin Baker, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery.)

“You got 90 seconds to get up and get down,” Curtis reminded the players, who knew the drill.

Moments later, they were off, the first group charging up the hill’s steady incline. Then came the second group and, finally, the third. And then the exercise started again.

Thirty seconds up, thirty seconds down, thirty seconds rest.

“That’s something that Coach Bennett has done over many years at Washington State and other places that he’s been,” Curtis said. “The primary goal of that is pretty much to build a little toughness.”

The team’s first visit to Washington Park had come a week earlier, when each group had run up the hill eight times. This day’s workout consisted of 10 repetitions. The players would do 12 a week later and 14 a week after that.

“Eventually we’ll get up to 16,” said Curtis, former strength-and-conditioning coach for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. “The primary objective is not so much from a performance standpoint, but more so from a mental-toughness standpoint.”

By the fifth sprint, fatigue started to show on the players’ faces, and their breathing was labored. After the seventh, the orange T-shirts started coming off.

Bennett was out of town, but Sanchez and administrative assistants Ronnie Wideman and Brad Soucie stood on the hilltop, stop watches in hand, encouraging and challenging the players.

“Last two minutes here,” Wideman yelled.

On the ninth trip up the hill, Zeglinski finally overtook Jones, who’d dominated to that point.

“That a way, Sammy,” Sanchez shouted. “I know you got it in you.”

Spurlock, a first-year forward, also prevailed for the first time on the ninth sprint. And on the 10th, Evans, a first-year point guard who had yet to cross the finish line first, surged to the front with Zeglinski.

“Get it Bub, get it Bub,” Sanchez said, using Evans’ nickname.

Evans didn’t pass Zeglinski, but they finished in a dead heat and then staggered off to recover. The team’s overall effort pleased players and coaches alike.

“That’s hard work, man,” Jones said to his teammates. “That’s what it’s about.”

“It’s tough,” said Landesberg, the ACC rookie of the year in 2008-09. “That’s more than just a conditioning thing. It builds toughness. Mental toughness.

“Running up that hill is just real hard, so you’ve got to get it in your head that you’re going to do it. You can’t let the hill break you down.”

Later, in his office at John Paul Jones Arena, Curtis talked about challenge of Washington Park.

“It’s quite a workout, and the guys have responded well, and they’ve done very, very well,” Curtis said. “Coach Bennett was surprised. I guess that some of his teams at Washington State and other places have struggled to complete that. But I think the work that our guys put in this summer has kind of laid the foundation for them to be able to complete those type of tasks.”

At the bottom of the hill, the players gathered around Curtis before returning to the bus for the short trip home to the JPJ.

“Good work,” Curtis told them. “I like the way you made it look easy. Next week we’re going to do the same with 12.”

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