Last year, coach Pat Jones coined the phrase, “new Nitro,” summing up a new attitude and level of success for the Wildcat girls basketball program.
This year, the Wildcats have a new floor to play on, a newly renovated locker room to call home and a new, even loftier set of expectations to operate under.
But in terms of the faces on the floor, not much has changed for Nitro, and that may be the best news of all.
“It’s not really a new group,” Jones said. “We’ve got a majority of the team back which makes it easier, because they remember every thing we taught last year. It’s not as much teaching as it is refreshing the memory.
“Now we’re just working on conditioning. We want to be the team in the fourth quarter in the best shape still pressing and getting after teams and putting them away.”
The Wildcats have shown marked improvement in the past two seasons under Jones, going a combined 30-17. Last season, Nitro went 17-7 overall and 10-3 in the Cardinal Conference, winning the league’s North Division along the way thanks to two wins over Winfield.
But immediate exits in the rugged Class AA Region 4 Section 1 semifinals in each of the past two seasons have somewhat overshadowed the progress the Wildcats have made. On practice on Wednesday, the words “Civic Center” were brought up early and often, a direct reference to not only breaking through in the sectional round, but earning a spot in the state tournament’s eight-team field.
The Wildcats’ new floor has plenty of gray area on it — inside the arc, along the baselines and sidelines and in an N-shaped logo at midcourt. But in terms of goals for the season, the expectations are black and white.
“The goal is the Civic Center obviously, we want to make the state tournament,” Jones said. “I feel like right now we have a really good nucleus of good ball players that get along and play well together.”
At the center of that is junior guard Baylee Goins, who burst onto the scene as a freshman two years ago and has left a path of accolades and impressive statistics in her wake. Goins was named the Kanawha Valley Rookie of the Year two seasons ago and has two first-team All-Kanawha Valley and Class AA first-team All-State nods to her credit in as many years. She led the Cardinal Conference in scoring as a freshman (20.7 points per game) and finished second in the league a year ago despite upping that mark to 23.3 points per contest.
Surrounding her is a cast that would seem to check all the boxes. Senior point guard Haley Carroll averaged 13 points a year ago and couples a command of the floor with a streaky-hot jump shot and slashing ability.
Senior post player Olivia Collier pulls down rebounds at a clip befitting a player much bigger than her thanks to a motor that doesn’t stop. Junior forward Brooklyn Bowen is a capable shooter who’s capable of doing damage on the glass and under the basket.
Sophomore Lena Elkins (5-foot-11) is out for the first time after winning the All-Kanawha Valley Freshman of the Year award in softball last spring and provides size on the inside along with fellow sophomore Emily Lancaster (6-foot). Sophomore sisters Patricia and Danielle Ward along with senior Maggie Driggs also bring experience to the rotation as well as capable scoring ability.
“We’ve been scrimmaging a lot and just going hard at each other,” Goins said. “Everybody has just been competing.”
Along with that experience and talent comes expectations, however. The Wildcats may be the only team in the Cardinal Conference with a starting group completely intact from last season.
Sissonville (Laila Arthur, Lindsey Ullman, Marleigh Bays), Chapmanville (Madison Webb, Kaylee Blair, Shea Pridemore) and Wayne (Lakyn Adkins and Whitney Sansom) were all hit significantly by graduation. Though Winfield should have returned its starters, the injury bug has already taken a toll on the Generals with Kalei Jordan out for the season with a torn ACL and point guard ZZ Russell on the shelf with ankle issues. Russell is expected back, perhaps as early as the team’s season opener.
So, is Nitro feeling the weight of those expectations?
“No, not pressure,” Goins said. “If anything, we’re just excited. This year is our best year I feel like.”
“I like her answer,” Jones said. “That’s what I want every girl to believe, but at the same time, it’s a dog-eat-dog in the Cardinal Conference. You’ve got to come out every night.”
The Wildcats will get their opportunity to do just that starting on Dec. 5 with a game at Poca. But for now, Jones likes what he sees, both with his team and with the facilities surrounding it.
“Looks good around here,” Jones said. “We’re building a new program, new Nitro.”