For St. Albans, the hard part is over.
Last season, the Red Dragons racked up their first winning record in 10 years and first postseason victory in five years, their first Class AAA state tournament berth since 2004 and halted some long, ugly losing streaks to fellow Mountain State Athletic Conference rivals.
However, now comes the harder part — keeping that momentum going and staying relevant in the cutthroat MSAC.
“The biggest thing,’’ said fourth-year SA coach Bryan England, “is making sure that we set standards for ourselves. We have raised those standards over the last two, three years. I think the mindset when I first got here was we just need to stay in games and give ourselves a chance. The mindset now is that we need to win games.
“So I think that winning teams embrace that. The perennial powerhouses across our state, when they step on the court, they expect to win. And that’s just an expectation, a mindset and I think that’s what we’re getting to, what we’re striving for. Where there’s nothing less than winning — and that’s what we want.’’
St. Albans suffered through an extended dry spell earlier this decade, going 54-152 over the course of eight seasons prior to 2019-20, and was a mere 27-90 in MSAC games.
But that all changed last winter as the Red Dragons went 17-8, catching fire at season’s end by winning eight of their final nine starts before COVID-19 brought a halt to postseason basketball around West Virginia.
Along the way, they ended a 10-game losing streak to Capital that spanned eight seasons (by winning in the sectional semifinals) and stopped a 17-game losing streak to Woodrow Wilson that began in 2002 (by capturing a regional co-finals victory). The previous season, SA halted a nine-game, eight-year stretch of losses to South Charleston.
Jaimelle Claytor, who begins his senior season this fall, realizes that the landscape has changed for the Red Dragons as expectations remain on the rise. He talked about that after he and SA’s other players finished up a three-week summer practice workout session Wednesday afternoon at the high school’s Tex M. Williams Gym.
“Some teams are going to come after us this year,’’ said the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Claytor. “It’s not just regular St. Albans now. We made a name for ourselves last year. Us seniors and returning players, we’re ready for it. It’s just kind of getting the young fellas ready, and letting them know that if something goes south, we’ve got to keep our heads up.’’
In Claytor, SA has someone upon which to pin its hopes for providing leadership and consistency on the court. Claytor was third on the team in scoring last season (12.9 points per game) and led the Red Dragons in rebounding (6.9) and assists (2.3).
“He’s got all the physical tools,’’ England said, “and we want him to be a little more scoring-minded, obviously, because having lost Ethan [Clay] and Rodney [Toler] from a scoring standpoint hurts.
“I think Jaimelle is ready to embrace that role, but the biggest thing that we have talked about is from a leadership standpoint — making sure that he holds people accountable on the team, making sure that from an effort standpoint, he leads by example. All those things, he’s done all summer long now. So I expect him to take a huge leap in the leadership department.’’
Claytor said he’s prepared for such a role.
“I’ve been ready for it,’’ he said. “Since I came to high school my ninth-grade year, I’ve been ready for it. Obviously, they want me to score and make sure these young guys don’t get down on themselves.’’
St. Albans will sport a somewhat different look next season, having lost two smaller guards in Clay and Toler, but returns 6-3 Drew Reed (7.6 points per game), 6-0 Bones Johnson (5.3), 6-0 Michael Hindman, 5-8 Jamison McDaniels and 6-3 Cooper Lane-Sturgill. The Red Dragons have also added 6-5 freshman Tyrique Wilkins.
“This could be our biggest team at St. Albans in a long time,’’ England said. “We’re going to have multiple guys between 6-2 and 6-5. So far in this three-week period, we’re very pleased with the team we’re going to have. Being a lot bigger, it might change the way we play defense slightly, but we still have have guys who can get in the paint, we still have guys who can score, and I think it’ll be just a minor adjustment from a defensive standpoint.
“I think the guys are very comfortable with the system we’re running, and this year’s crew can carry on what last year’s crew did. I think we may have to throw some different looks defensively than we did, but it pretty much looks like continuity in what we’re doing.’’
Defense has been SA’s calling card since England took over, as opponents averaged just 48.4 points last season and the Red Dragons held eight teams to 40 points or fewer.