With some of the state’s top programs dealing with significant departures from a year ago, the door seems as open as it has been for a long time – especially in Class AAA and Class AA – for a Kanawha Valley team to make a significant run at a state championship.
It’s a pretty significant drought the Valley will try to end this year, as no team from either Kanawha or Putnam County has even appeared in a state title game since Sissonville claimed the Class AA crown in 2015. Among big schools, South Charleston has the last title game appearance in 2011 and the last championship, all the way back in 2004.
The Black Eagles are one of several programs in the Valley who have the bulk of its roster back from a year ago, setting the table for a potentially big year locally. Among the crop of talent returning are three first-team All-Kanawha Valley selections from a season ago in Nitro junior Baylee Goins, George Washington junior Kalissa Lacy and South Charleston senior Myra Cuffee.
Goins now has two such designations and two first-team All-State selections to her credit in as many seasons. Lacy, in leading the Mountain State Athletic Conference in scoring at 18.6 points per game, picked up her first spot on the Class AAA All-State first team. Cuffee led the Black Eagles with 14 points per game and helped guide SC back to the state semifinals last season.
Nitro, GW and SC figure to be three teams competing for spots in the state tournament once the postseason arrives. But outside of those three players, there are plenty of solid contributors to be found across the Valley.
Here is a look at 12 other players to watch:
Lauren Harmison, GW, sr., F: One of the best true inside/outside players in the Valley, Harmison can hurt teams from beyond the arc and on the glass. More than that, Harmison is a four-year starter and the leader of a Patriots squad that should be deeper and bigger than it has been in some time. Several other Patriots could have made this list. Vivian Ho will be instrumental at point guard. Aamyah Washington’s transfer in from St. Albans will help solidify a front court already manned by Neveah Harmon and Mary Lyle Smith. All of them will benefit from Lacy’s sharpshooting as well. But Harmison may be the heart and soul of coach Jamie LaMaster’s squad this season.
Allison Dunbar, Herbert Hoover, sr., G: One of the state’s best-kept secrets and fresh off of signing to play at Concord next season, Dunbar will get one more crack at leading Hoover to statewide relevancy. The combo guard was one of four players to average more than 20 points per game last season at 21.3 (Sissonville’s Laila Arthur 25.4, Goins 23.3 and Logan’s Peyton Ilderton 20.3 were the others). So far, her individual exploits haven’t led to overwhelming success for the Huskies, though the team’s mark of 10-13 a year ago was a step in the right direction from a 6-17 campaign the year before.
Maliha Witten, South Charleston, jr., G/F: Witten played the best basketball of her career thus far down the stretch last season, earning a Class AAA All-Tournament selection at the state tournament. Her scoring average dropped a bit in her sophomore year, from 14.4 points per game as a freshman to 10.2 a year ago. Much of that, though, was due to the arrival of Cuffee and the return of Lavender Ward, both of which ate into Witten’s shot volume. Witten also served as the team’s primary facilitator when Ward was injured. She possesses a capable jump shot, is physical in getting to the rim and now has plenty of game experience at point guard, shooting guard and small forward.
Lauren Hudson/Emily Hudson, Winfield, senior forwards: The Generals’ own twin towers have steadily improved over three years and are listed together because an opponent can never be sure as to which one may have the bigger night. The two have traded in-house scoring titles over the past two seasons with Lauren winning the sibling rivalry a year ago, averaging 11.7 per contest compared to 10.1 for Emily. Both are devastating on the glass, especially on the offensive side, and both are plenty athletic enough to play in coach Kelsey Spang’s pressure defense. Emily won the Valley’s Defensive Player of the Year award last season, using her 5-foot-11 frame and length at the top of the Generals’ 1-2-2 zone press.
Z.Z. Russell, Winfield, sr., PG: A large group of Generals seniors have one more chance to get back to the state tournament, a place their freshman season ended in the semifinals against Bluefield. Russell was an All-State first-team pick that season and was the Kanawha Valley Freshman of the Year. Since then, her numbers – and the team’s success – have declined somewhat. Russell fought through ankle problems last season and led a more balanced Winfield attack with 13.7 points per game. Her speed in transition and quickness in getting to the rim have been her calling cards for three seasons.
Jasmine Symns, Riverside, sr., PG: Symns finished fifth in the MSAC scoring race last year, averaging 15.1 points per game. Like Harmison and Russell, Symns is entering her fourth season as a starter for the Warriors. Symns enters the season just 208 points short of 1,000 for her career and has averaged in double figures in each of her three seasons at Riverside.
Nadia Legros, Hurricane, sr., C: Legros started as one of the hottest players in the MSAC but as the schedule ramped up and teams continued to throw double teams her way, the road got tougher. She finished averaging 14.4 points per game for a Redskins team that managed just a 6-17 record. The 6-foot post has a height advantage against nearly any matchup she faces, but will need teammates to help keep opposing defenses honest if the Redskins have significant postseason aspirations this year.
Talayah Boxley, Capital, soph., G: Though Capital also finished just 6-17 last season, it marked a significant improvement from the year before as the Cougars finished winless at 0-20. Boxley won the Valley Rookie of the Year award, scoring 10.7 points per game along the way. Capital’s march toward respectability under coach Michael Cunningham could take another step forward this season. Boxley is one of several young players back including fellow freshman Nataliya Sayles, also a member of the Valley All-Rookie team last season.
Olivia Collier, Nitro, sr., F: At 5-7, Collier is almost always undersized in the paint, but her efforts on the offensive and defensive glass continue to feed shots to Goins, senior point guard Haley Carroll and others. In the Indians’ title run in 2015, guards Madison Jones and Karlie Pinkerton accumulated accolades while leading Sissonville in most statistical categories. But Brooke Reed, an undersized post player, consistently controlled the boards while playing among the trees and was integral to that championship as well. Simply put – Collier is Nitro’s Brooke Reed.
Megan Thornburg, St. Albans, sr., G/Alexis Bailey, Sissonville, sr., G: Both Thornburg and Bailey find themselves in similar positions – as senior leaders under new head coaches on teams dealing with significant personnel losses from a year ago. For Thornburg, Shayna Gore marks her third coach in four years while Bailey and the Indians will operate under the direction of Dave Sisson, who takes over for Rich Skeen.
Both programs have proud traditions with the Indians coming off a state-tournament appearance but without its three top players from a year ago including the state’s leading scorer Laila Arthur. Washington’s transfer to GW also took a major weapon away from the Red Dragons. How much success either of these teams have will likely depend on the production and leadership of these two players.