By Dan Stillwell
Register-Herald Sports Writer
It probably wouldn’t be too far off the mark to say Nicholas County is the big surprise of Class AA girls basketball this season.
The Grizzlies are 13-1 and ranked third in the latest Associated Press prep poll.
Yet Coach Tom McGirl’s team is an unknown quantity to teams and fans around the state.
“We’re out on a little island,” McGirl said. “We have to travel around to find competition and games.”
Nicholas had languished in recent years on the Class AAA level, not reaching the state tournament since 2001.
But after dropping down to Class AA this season, the Grizzlies have flourished.
They defeated No. 4 Clay County 73-71 Jan. 17, and, in a game that turned a lot of heads, gave No. 1 Westside, the defending state champion, a real test before falling 41-30 back on Dec. 12.
“It was nip and tuck all game,” Renegades coach Jamie Lusk said. “Nicholas is big, talented and well-coached.”
The two squads will square off again at 7:30 p.m. today in Clear Fork. Westside is 13-0, coming off a 53-45 home victory Wednesday over No. 12 Scott.
McGirl hopes for an even better game tonight.
“They got up on us 12-0. Our kids were a little bit in awe of playing the No. 1 team in the state,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have grown up from that point.”
Nicholas was 15-8 last season and returned the majority of its starters.
“My daughter (Kristen) graduated, and that was a perimeter presence gone, but I knew we’d still be pretty good,” McGirl said. “Our chemistry has been real solid. The kids really like each other.”
All-state center Shaelyn Shafer and fourth-year guard Lauren Young have played key roles in the Grizzlies’ success.
Shafer is averaging 20.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 3.1 steals. She’s also second on the team with nine 3-point goals.
“Shealyn works. She plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” McGirl said. “Every possession is a war.”
Young makes things happen from her 3-guard spot. She averages 7.9 points and 5.8 assists per game, and is a standout on defense.
“Lauren takes charges like crazy. She’s taken 27 in her last 18 games,” McGirl said. “She sets the tone, defensively. She gets the assignment of guarding the other team’s best player.”
Other starters include sophomore point guard MyKenzie Martin (9.5 ppg/2.5 assists, 20 3s), 6-foot power forward Nicole Hamilton (6.1 ppg, and is averaging 14.5 rebounds her last two games) and senior Lindsey Hogan (3 ppg, but didn’t start until recently).
Makayla Willis (5 ppg), the best slasher on the team, and rebounder Alexis Brown (5.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg) are the top subs.
Westside will answer with sophomore first-team all-stater Hope Lester (17.4 ppg, 13 rpg, 4 assists, 2 blocks) at center, junior forward Megan Endicott (9 ppg, 8 rpg), senior point guard Morgan Spolarich (9 ppg, 8 assists), junior guard Danielle Brown (11 ppg, 26 3s) and junior Faith Davis (13 ppg).
The Grizzlies are averaging 73 points, which shows the quality of Nicholas’ defense against them in their first matchup.
“Neither team played real well offensively, but both played solid defense,” McGirl said. “Both teams affected the way the other played on offense.
“Tonight we have to compete early (Nicholas trailed 12-0 in December’s game). Hope will get her points, but we have to make sure their guards don’t get too many easy looks. Davis, Spolarich and Brown do a great job of knocking shots down.
“We’re going into a hostile atmosphere, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
— E-mail: dstillwell