Every team still alive in the girls basketball postseason — hanging by a thread while awaiting a final call from the Secondary School Activities Commission — has its own unique story.
For the Winfield girls, it’s a story of a potential coronation being cut short by the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, the Generals played arguably their best half of basketball in four years, blistering Westside 48-10 after the break in an eventual 81-38 state tournament quarterfinal victory. On Thursday, while preparing for a semifinal date against PikeView, they got the word that the season might be over after the SSAC suspended the tournament indefinitely.
“We had actually just finished up a walk-through and we were in the huddle getting ready to break down and head out and we got the word,” Winfield coach Kelsey Spang said. “Immediate panic went through my head. Literally so much hard work — studying, dedication, blood, sweat and tears left on the court, and it may have just been disappearing. It was pretty tough.”
“It took our breath away,” senior point guard ZZ Russell added. “We’ve worked so hard. Not just us, but all the teams in the state that are still playing.”
The mood at West Virginia State University, where Winfield was practicing, turned on a dime. Where there once was a focused group of Generals still pursuing a goal set four years ago, a collective group — including five seniors — was left devastated with the realization that their chance to end their careers on the highest note may be over. And not because of a loss on the court.
“We were ready to play our final games together and that came to a sudden halt,” senior guard Mara McGrew said. “We’ve played together since the third grade. This has always been our goal, and now we don’t know if we’re going to play together again. This time we had a chance to win the whole thing. It’s really disappointing.”
The story of this group starts three seasons ago. Winfield, under now-Hurricane coach Shawn Lucas, burst onto the scene, using a frantic pressure defense to take the Cardinal Conference by storm and eventually make a run all the way to the state semifinals. The Generals would fall there to No. 1 seed Bluefield, but with such a young core group, the future seemed bright.
But the following two seasons didn’t go quite as planned. Lucas left to take the Redskins job before the next year and, despite successful regular seasons, Winfield couldn’t recapture the magic of the 2016-2017 campaign.
The Generals fell in overtime at Logan in a regional co-final in 2018 under coach Jimmy McPherson.
A year ago, Winfield ran out to a 16-4 start before falling in its final three games, including a sectional semifinal loss to Sissonville at home that ended the season. All of that came under Spang in her first season after McPherson lasted just one year.
But from the outset this season, things were different. Where in the past Winfield had folded under pressure and in the face of adversity, the Generals embraced it. It showed early in an overtime win at South Charleston and again in a 10-point conquest of Lincoln at East Fairmont.
The Generals steamrolled a Cardinal Conference that has been brutally tough in years past. Only once in 13 league games was Winfield’s outcome decided by less than 20 points, and that was a 16-point win at Nitro.
Finally, a team that had been buried under the weight of expectations seemed to mature enough to embrace them and flourish in the face of them.
“I think since we’re a senior-oriented team, we realized this was our last time to go around,” McGrew said. “We knew we didn’t have another season.”
“Our heart, our hustle and our determination,” Russell added. “What’s so amazing about our team is that we play for each other. If Mara isn’t hot, I’m hot. If Emily [Hudson] isn’t hot, Lauren [Hudson] is hot. We’re always there to pick each other up.”
After two seasons away, on Wednesday, those Winfield seniors stepped back onto the Charleston Coliseum floor where they had so impressively introduced themselves to the state three years ago and arguably put together the best half of basketball in their careers. How could they have known it would possibly be their last?
As the last day has come and gone and as the days until a call is made by the SSAC crawl by, those seniors are playing that worst-case scenario in their minds. Just like seniors from girls and boys teams around the state.
And whether or not the Generals would have seen it through and captured a state championship, who knows? The possibility still exists that Winfield will get its opportunity.
But if this group of seniors never gets that chance, they take comfort in the way it ended, whether they knew it would be the end or not.
“I think there are a lot of people sad for us — they wanted to watch us play, they loved watching us play,” McGrew said. “But we had the best year. We made it this far. We were ranked No. 1 for a couple of weeks. We’ve done the best we can and we don’t have any regrets.”
“It’d be heartbreaking but, to me, it’d also be a blessing,” Russell added. “Yeah, we didn’t get to where we wanted to be, but we knew we could get there. We finished out strong and if that was our last game, it’s not like we didn’t finish.”