Perhaps no team in the state – at least among those reaching the state tournament a year ago – had as much to replace as George Washington would have this season.
Four of the Patriots’ top five in the lineup a year ago – Katy Darnell, Grace Smith, Emma Groe, Lauren Price – all graduated and the fifth, Brianna McCown, transferred to St. Albans in the offseason for her senior year. Grace Darnell, a starting outfielder and bottom-of-the-order hitter, also graduated.
Then in the offseason, coach Kim Darby departed and was replaced by Antonio Jimenez, a former middle school coach at John Adams.
The season certainly pointed to one of growth and development for a squad of largely inexperienced players taking over a program riding a string of three straight Class AAA state tournament appearances.
“There’s no way to replace a team like that,” Jimenez said. “We had holes everywhere but our players were stepping up to the plate. We were looking at the season optimistically and I think we had a good opportunity to end up with a winning season.”
The Patriots weren’t completely void of returners. Jimenez’s daughter Ana, a pitcher and infielder, would have been back for her sophomore season after starting as a freshman a year ago. Junior Kalissa Lacy, fresh off winning the Mary Ostrowski Award as the state’s top girls basketball player, was also back in the fold after starting in each of her first two seasons.
Senior Emma Sitler, a catcher and infielder, started in spots over the past couple of seasons as well and possessed much-needed pop in a lineup that lost the vast majority of its power. Seniors Jordan Krivonyak and Bethany Hunley have seen playing time in their careers as well.
McCown’s unexpected exit left the team not only reeling in terms of hitting, but without its stalwart in the circle. Ana Jimenez would have likely taken some of those innings and freshman Alexis Adams, a transfer from Elkview Middle School, would have likely complemented her.
In addition to leaning on that senior group that also included Allison Dorsey, Jimenez said plenty of youngsters had impressed.
“I was looking for [the seniors] to deliver this year and we were hoping they could step up,” Jimenez said. “[Sophomore] Savannah Graley was probably going to catch for me some and she was hitting the ball well too. [Junior] Emily Franco was also hitting the ball well and she was going to play in the outfield. Kensy Thomas was one of my freshmen and she was doing really well and was also looking at an outfield position.”
A year ago, GW slugged 48 home runs with McCown clubbing 14, Katy Darnell 10 and Smith 9 to lead the way. Meanwhile, McCown punched out 210 hitters in 161 2/3 innings, riding an overpowering fastball in guiding the Patriots to the state championship game.
But in addition to new personnel, GW was going to have to adopt some new philosophies to be successful this time around. Jimenez said this year’s edition of the Patriots would have to operate under a small-ball mentality to have success offensively while needing to pitch to contact and be solid in the field on defense.
“I’m a true believer in small ball,” Jimenez said. “But I was working with them on their power and they were doing well, keeping their hands above the ball and hitting consistently. But we were looking to try to produce runs.
“This was going to be a season where we were going to relearn how to play. Our pitching is good pitching, but the ball was going to be in play and we had to make plays. We practiced defense and looked better every day.”
For now, GW will have to wait another year like all spring sports teams in West Virginia. And maybe the Patriots have as much to prove as any team once things do get underway next year.
Because in addition to trying to prove themselves, the Patriots will battle public perception as well – perception that despite three straight regional championships, GW is no longer a team to fear.
“That was noticeable, not only in how people were talking but also teams suddenly trying to schedule games with us,” Jimenez said. “Our seniors were very motivated. I could feel uncertainty at times but as we moved on in practices, the kids were gaining confidence.”