George Washington girls basketball poised for big season behind slew of returners

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George Washington´s Katy Darnell was a Class AAA all-state second-team selection last year as a sophomore.

It was easy to see coming a year ago when a starting five of all underclassmen at George Washington was taking its lumps against senior-laden state powers — the tide was bound to turn after nearly everyone else was impacted in some way by graduation.

GW fired the first warning shot at the St. Albans High School Shootout on Wednesday behind a group of talented players now a year older and now with a massive chip on their shoulders.

The Patriots knocked off both of last year’s Class AA state finalists — Fairmont Senior and Bluefield — and were largely impressive on a day in which the team played five games with a roster of six players and with two starters from last season (point guard Tory Self and wing Sydney Mallory) both out but expected to return once the season begins.

Game results at the Shootout and other similar events during the three-week practice period which wraps up this week aren’t very important, but GW coach Jamie LaMaster said he has seen his group progress greatly from where it was just a few months ago.

“I don’t know what the difference is from March to right now, but in a few months their mentality is totally different,” LaMaster said. “Last year they were walking around and pouting, like the ‘Walking Dead’ or something, but that’s not what you see now, it’s a total 180.”

Talent hasn’t been and won’t be a problem for GW, with first-team all-Kanawha Valley selection Katy Darnell playing the wing, all-rookie team selection Lauren Harmison underneath and Dee McMillan adding another guard/wing option. Darnell was a member of the Class AAA all-state second team a year ago as a sophomore while Harmison, McMillan and Self all garnered all-state honorable mention.

But it’s more a growth in confidence, tenacity and basketball IQ that is evident when the team takes the floor. A lot of that can be attributed to a disappointing season a year ago in which returning first-team all-state player Shi Banks was injured in the very first game and missed the rest of her senior season.

That left the group of youngsters to take on a brutal schedule in which six of the team’s 10 in-state losses came against state tournament teams (St. Albans, South Charleston and Parkersburg).

However, within those sometimes lopsided beatings, the Patriots learned some tough lessons that already seem to be paying dividends.

“First of all, this group isn’t used to losing,” LaMaster said. “Last year we had a couple of new pieces fit together and I don’t think they liked the way things went last year. There were times we got pounded. Like the MSAC [consolation] game [an 81-45 loss to SC] — that was embarrassing. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that embarrassed in my life. But I think the kids going through it and it being a process and showing some mental toughness and maturity, because it’s not physical.

“I’ve been pleased with their mentality all summer. The way they play and they just keep competing. I don’t see any heads dropping. I don’t have any bench attitudes. It’s fun to coach this group, because there are times when they are really exciting to watch.”

Freshmen Kalissa Lacy and Vivien Ho helped fill GW’s roster on Wednesday, as did sophomore Neveah Harmon, who helped Harmison on the interior. Lacy led GW in scoring twice during its first four games on Wednesday and she and Ho filled the guard positions with Darnell and McMillan playing mostly on the wings.

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Two teams that find themselves in very similar situations, albeit across two different classes, were also on display Wednesday — Poca and host St. Albans.

Each team broke a long state-tournament drought a year ago, with the Red Dragons getting to the Civic Center for the first time since 1995 and the Dots breaking a drought dating back to 1999.

And it’s a little bit of “now what?” for both. Each team will have to replace its leading scorer and a first-team all-Kanawha Valley player (St. Albans’ Haleigh Legg and Poca’s Casey Skeens) as well as a second key starter (St. Albans’ Alli Johnson and Poca’s Sarah Fisher) to build on last season’s success.

The Dots claimed a 47-35 win over Braxton County on Wednesday, and 13 of their 17 field goals were from beyond the 3-point arc.

That’s all well and good as long as those shots are falling, but Poca coach Kenny Sayre knows his team will have to improve around the rim, especially with Skeens, the team’s best slasher, now on to play softball at Eastern Michigan.

Returning starters Madi Ord, Aubrey Chandler and Molly Collins were in uniform on Wednesday and each had a big part in the 3-point barrage.

“We can’t live or die by that,” Sayre said. “Aubrey’s got to get better taking the ball to the basket, that’s what she’s got to work on. But Madi can shoot, man, she can light it up, and Aubrey can too. We just can’t rely on that. We’ve got to get some penetration.”

Poca relied heavily on the 3-pointer a year ago, but the Dots will have to try to find some way to replace Skeens’ game management and ability to get to the rim. Fisher, meanwhile, wasn’t as much of a scorer but patrolled the middle, racking up rebounds and giving the usually outsized squad a presence inside.

That role could be in the hands of rising junior Jessica Pontier, and if Taylor Bonnett, who suffered a major knee injury during the season a year ago, can return, it would also help the Dots immensely. Bonnett is still a question mark.

“Last year we kind of went to the pack a bit to stay inside and help out on rebounding,” Sayre said. “But we’ve got to get better defensively and have all five rebounding.”

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As for the Red Dragons, second-team all-state point guard Jaden McDaniels will figure to be relied on heavily with the departures of Legg and Johnson.

McDaniels didn’t play Wednesday, and neither did potential starters Valessa Jackson and Aamiyah Washington, each of whom are dealing with injuries. All three should be back before the season.

Megan Thornburg and Kalie Swearingen also played big minutes a year ago, so the Red Dragons aren’t exactly void of experience. But to reach the same heights, the team has a lot of work to do.

“Our basketball IQ has to grow,” coach Scott James said. “Physically they’re doing some things well, but we have to grow in that area.”

Much of the team’s potential will rely on McDaniels’ maturity as a leader. James said she’s done a nice job at that so far this summer.

“She has stepped up in that area,” James said. “At Morgantown, she was the mom of the group, the only senior, and she showed leadership up there. Even being injured today, she’s worked on the work schedule for the girls yesterday and today and has done a tremendous job with that and that takes a burden off of me.”

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James, the newly named mayor of St. Albans, began the St. Albans Shootout 12 years ago and has watched it grow into one of the premier events in the state during the three-week period.

He reflected a bit on the event that has provided an advantageous venue for teams to test themselves against the state’s best.

“We started out with seven teams, and if you count varsities and JVs, we’ve probably got about 48 or 50 different teams and about 35 different schools represented,” James said. “It’s something I’m very proud of. We use five different venues around town and the community rallies around us in the process — we’ve got a lot of donations from them, especially for the hospitality room which is second to none. It’s a community event, not just a high school event.”

Contact Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @rpritt.

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