Twelve Loudoun County basketball players occupied the school bus rolling North on I-95 Thursday morning. Due to an ultimately anticlimactic snowstorm and concerns over the bus’s viability on slush-laced roads, the girls had an extra night in Richmond to ruminate on Wednesday’s night’s outcome before making the road trip back to Leesburg.
The Raiders’ season ended with a 51-38 loss to Salem in the Virginia AA Division 4 state semifinals at VCU Wednesday. All season long, a youth-laden roster overcame internal concerns about surrendering too much size, strength and experience.
Loudoun County went 24-6, claimed second place in Region II Division 4 and advanced to the final four of the state tournament while fielding a varsity with five freshmen, five sophomores, two juniors and no player taller than 5-foot-11.
“We went into this season knowing we had good players, but just concerned that there would be a lot of physical mismatches,” Loudoun County Coach Derek Fisher said. “We underestimated the grit of these kids.”
Against Salem, the stingy man-to-man defense that kept Loudoun County alive in low-scoring contests could not solve the mismatch created by Wake Forest commit Tay Taylor, who scored 24 points.
In the wake of the loss, tears fell and frustrations aired. But Fisher said by dinner time the girls were pert once again. No matter how dour the atmosphere might have been, Loudoun County took comfort in the fact that every girl on the bus is eligible to return.
Junior captain Maggie Phillips described her team as a “family” built upon mutual trust and accountability.
“There was no real difference in authority or age,” said Phillips, who was a key contributor as a freshman on the Raiders’ 2011 state finalist team. “We never talk about respect and the way that grade levels go. We don’t go out playing the freshman card.”
Phillips (14.3 points per game) led the team in scoring 19 times, but five other players took on the responsibility in other games.
Freshman Elisabeth Gianelos, whom Fisher described as a “Dennis Rodman type” getting by on effort and rebounding, scored a team-high 15 points in a state quarterfinal win against Grafton. Fellow first-year player Alyssa Paige — who assumed point guard duties in the starting lineup — notched a team-high 14 points in a win over Powhatan in a Region II Division 4 quarterfinal.
Fisher, Phillips and Paige all cited an infectious team chemistry and common humility as reasons for Loudoun County’s unexpected success.
With everyone aboard the bus for next year, the Raiders have set a high standard.
By winning four straight Region II Division 4 championships, advancing to the state final four in each of those seasons and winning two consecutive state championships in 2009-10 and 2010-11, Potomac Falls Coach Jeff Hawes has created a winning culture disappointed with anything less than winning the state.
“One of my friends said it well. ‘The pain we feel is being a victim of our own success,’” Hawes said.
The loss of crucial seniors could pour salt on that wound. D’Shawn Shorts led the Panthers (26-5) with 42 three-pointers, 6-foot-6 center Steven Tondi provided an inside presence and Michael Fischetti contributed leadership and scoring off the bench.
But the Panthers also bring back three key contributors. Sophomore Wanya Allen (16.5 points per game), freshman Michael Janowski (12.1) and junior Deandre Thomas (8.3) provide reason to believe Potomac Falls could maintain the Panther mystique.
Janowski said opponents are always conscious of the winning tradition at Potomac Falls, and it will be that way again next year.
“I know if I was them, I would be a little nervous to play us,” he said.
Hawes said his team takes pride in its offseason development. The Panthers will take three or four weeks off to “catch our breath” before starting basketball camps and summer league.
In addition to a base of experienced players, Hawes can smile at the state of the Panthers’ pipeline of talent.
“We had a JV team that was 21-1, a freshman team that was 20-2 and I’m sitting here watching my eighth grade team that’s undefeated,” Hawes said Thursday night. “So it’s good to be me.”