George Washington girls basketball coach Jamie LaMaster didn’t need three weeks of practices to know what he was looking at in terms of the newcomers to his program.
“As a collective group, I’m going to have to say this is the nicest looking group of talent that I’ve seen in a freshman class in 16 years,” he said at a practice on Tuesday.
And that doesn’t count 6-foot-2 senior post player Nyla Birch, who is coming out for the first time since her freshman season and is already drawing comparisons from LaMaster to former GW first-team All-Stater and Kanawha Valley Player of the Year center Shi Banks.
Indeed, there is plenty of excitement in the gym on The Hill these days. As the school is under major construction, seemingly being rebuilt from the inside out, the team hopes it’s doing the same after losing four key contributors from last season.
Freshmen Macie Mallory and Finley Lohan arrive from a John Adams program that went 57-2 with a pair of Kanawha County championships in the past three years. They are joined by incoming freshman Alaira Evans, who comes to the program from Chapmanville Middle School.
Together, the three form a nucleus of ninth graders that could help sustain the program over the next four seasons.
“Obviously the goal is to keep them as four-year players,” LaMaster said. “But especially when you have a talented group of kids coming in together like this, you want to enjoy every second of it, watch them develop and watch them grow.”
All three have good size for ninth graders, with Mallory checking in at 5-9, Evans at 5-10 and Lohan at 5-11. All are at the least above-average shooters and all are either currently playing for (Mallory and Lohan) or formerly played for (Evans) the West Virginia Thunder, a top-tier AAU program based in Huntington.
Yet the three bring their own strengths to the game as well. Lohan is a supreme ball handler and, with her height, is comfortable playing any position on the floor. Mallory is an elite outside shooter with a high motor and basketball IQ. Evans, a post player by trade, has expanded her game to the outside and, like Lohan, is positionally versatile.
They will join a GW roster that gets back three senior starters — point guard Vivian Ho, forward Mary Lyle Smith and shooting guard Kalissa Lacy, the winner of the Mary Ostrowski Award as the state’s player of the year last season.
Although the youngsters are in the early stages of trying to solidify themselves on the team, chemistry already seems to be developing.
“It’s been really fun to meet new people,” Lohan said. “I’m just trying to be a team player and fit in the best that I can, especially because I’m new.”
“I feel like our team has all the right players,” Mallory added. “We have good shooters, good point guards, good posts — just what you need for a team. And we don’t have any selfish players on the team.”
Both Mallory and Lohan have been around the program as they advanced through middle school, but for Evans, a move to a new school adds even more importance to settling in as the three-week period draws to a close.
“I’m glad to be here, it’s a big change, but it’s better,” Evans said. “[Mallory, Lohan and I] played AAU together and they’re good friends too.”
Birch missed GW’s practice on Tuesday but could also prove to be a vital weapon for the Patriots this season.
“She really reminds you of a [Banks]-type build and she’s really in shape,” LaMaster said. “She’s a volleyball player, so she leaps really well and she’s athletic. She played her freshman year and then stepped away but she’s back and we’re excited to have her. Walking around at 6-2, you don’t coach that.”
GW graduated four key seniors in starters Lauren Harmison and Neveah Harmon as well as reserves Aamyah Washington and Kaya Thompson. But with the influx of new players as well as players like rising sophomore Kierstin Fore and rising senior Sarah Riley, both of whom are expected to compete for minutes as well, the Patriots would seem to have the pieces to carry on quite nicely.
But, with Lacy, Ho, Smith and Birch entering their senior years, this season would be the only opportunity for them all to play together. And while the future seems bright with the freshmen on the roster, there will be a fairly high bar set from day one for this group, especially after a disappointing stretch run and end to last season, when GW fell at Woodrow Wilson in a regional co-final.
“I don’t think with me personally, I’d say pressure,” LaMaster said. “I’ll be quite honest, we’ve had four [state] semifinal teams — obviously the ultimate goal is the state championship, but I’ll never say we weren’t successful because we didn’t win it. I don’t know that pressure is the right word, but my expectations are extremely high, I’ll say that.”