The George Washington girls basketball shootout on Friday had everything one would expect from teams during the three-week practice period — a little good, a little bad, some familiar faces and some in new places.
The day-long event consisted of 24 games in the main and auxiliary gyms featuring several local teams and beyond.
GW played in its first such event of the summer on Friday without the services of point guard Vivian Ho and post player Mary Lyle Smith, both of who were on vacation. Still, even with two-time first-team All-State selection Katy Darnell having graduated, the Patriots showcased plenty of veteran savvy with returning starters Kalissa Lacy, Lauren Harmison and Neveah Harmon all back in the fold.
“I’ve been pleased so far,” GW coach Jamie LaMaster said. “Of course it looks a little bit different in your first time out, but for the most part I was pleased. Right now I’m looking at things like their energy, their effort and attitudes and they’ve all graded out high on that.”
In addition to the aforementioned returners, senior post Aamyah Washington also made her debut for the Patriots as she will transfer in from St. Albans. In recent years, GW has been a primarily guard-oriented team, but with Washington to go along with Harmon, Smith and Harmison, the Patriots have a lineup that is versatile and should be one of the bigger rosters in the state.
“Adding her and her sister along with Neveah returning, we’ll be big,” LaMaster said. “What she adds for us is — Neveah has done a great job, there’s just not enough Neveahs.
“[Washington] allows us to have more of a one-on-one, back-to-the-basket, traditional post player.”
Adjusting to a bigger lineup won’t be the only change for LaMaster, now entering his 15th season at the helm and 25th as a girls basketball coach overall. For the first time in that span, he will have a daughter on the squad as Harley LaMaster enters her ninth-grade season with the Patriots.
“I just tell her what she needs to know, I say very little to her and if she has a question on the car ride home I just answer like any other kid,” LaMaster said. “Right now it’s a big enough transition from middle to high school, let alone coming to play for Dad.”
Nitro seemingly turned a corner in the middle of last season, winning nine in a row, including a pair over rival Winfield before bowing out in the sectional semifinals at Wayne.
The Wildcats’ entire starting five is back and saw action on Friday. Despite losing to Gilmer County and Westside, coach Pat Jones was happy just to get his roster on the floor and get an early idea of what to expect entering next season.
“I learned that we have a lot of work to do,” Jones said. “But overall I’m pleased, because I’ve seen what we need to work on going into this upcoming season.”
There were a couple of new faces on the floor for the Wildcats, but Nitro’s additions both came from within. Leslie Boley, a key contributor two seasons ago, was back with the team on Friday, as was sophomore Lena Elkins.
Elkins, the Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year in softball, played basketball in middle school and seems intent on giving the hardwood another go this season with what should be a promising Wildcats squad. Her height and strength could be just what the doctor ordered as Nitro’s biggest hole is in the lane where Brooklyn Bowen and Olivia Collier are often undersized in battling on the glass.
“She’s going to be a big factor for us,” Jones said. “She fills that big that I’ve missed on the rebounding end. I don’t worry about Olivia, but she’s going to help Olivia and that allows me to bring Brooklyn out to play the position I need her to play.”
Nitro finished the season 17-7, won the Cardinal Conference North Division and saw rising junior Baylee Goins pick up her second first-team All-State nod in as many years.
While Nitro may have snuck up on a few teams a year ago, the word is surely out on the Wildcats, who will now have to deal with some new pressure that comes with heavy expectations.
“I notice it, I think Baylee notices it with back-to-back first-team All-State — she stands out and she has a target on her back,” Jones said. “I told the girls after the first game, someone has to step up. I need another guard to step up and help push the ball up the court.”
Nitro’s two wins over Winfield gave the Wildcats the tiebreaker in the North Division, but the Generals are every bit as stocked for a deep postseason run.
Winfield also get its starting five back in full, and most of them — guards Z.Z. Russell and Mara McGrew along with forwards Lauren and Emily Hudson — were on the court on Friday as the team played games against Clay County, Westside and Greenbrier East.
The real changes for Winfield comes on the bench, where assistant coaches D.J. Williams and Pat McGinnis helped head coach Kelsey Spang give instruction on Friday. Williams was the boys coach at Sissonville a year ago and McGinnis was briefly the girls coach at Winfield two summers ago before having to step down before the season started due to health issues. McGinnis also has familiarity with the Generals’ roster from his work with the middle school team.
Between them, Spang, entering her second season, has plenty of knowledge to draw from as she attempts to guide a team with six seniors back to the state tournament for the first time in three years.
“Having diversity and the way they think and their expertise and mixing it in with how we’re going to run things — I think it’s going to be positive,” Spang said. “When [McGinnis] coached middle school these girls were in middle school so they have that repertoire with him. Everything he suggests, that’s their style of ball anyway, which is great. Now we just have to organize the chaos a little bit.”
The Generals burst onto the double-A scene with a semifinal run in 2017 but haven’t been able to get back despite having a core group that was on that team. Over the course of their careers, those players have seen several coaching changes, with Spang lining up to be the first coach to last longer than one season with the group.
But Spang and the players realize a once wide-open window is closing this year, and where opportunities once seemed endless, now looms one final chance.
“This is for the core group, their last chance,” Spang said. “I think there’s some redemption coming back, but it’s like this year we have to settle in, focus on fundamentals and game plan.”