The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 6, 2013

‘It was like coaching in Hoosiers or something’

Spartans’ Justice is Register-Herald Girls Coach of the Year

Jim Justice has done and seen almost everything in his life. He’s was recently listed as the richest man in West Virginia. He owns the world famous Greenbrier Resort and he brought a PGA TOUR golf tournament to the Mountain State.

But at his core, Justice is a basketball coach. That’s why he lights up like a Douglas fir on Christmas morning when he talks about the season he just experienced as the head coach of the Greenbrier East Lady Spartans, the first squad in school history to finish a regular season undefeated.

“It was like coaching in Hoosiers or something,” said Justice, the 2013 Register-Herald Girls Coach of the Year, referring to the movie about an underdog Indiana basketball team. “I’ve said it a bunch of times, but it was very, very improbable.”

To understand why the Spartans’ 2012-13 season was something that could have caught the eye of a Paramount Pictures producer, it’s important to first learn the background.

Greenbrier East cut down the nets in Charleston last March as the 2012 Class AAA state champions, and it would have been a clear favorite to repeat. But just before the start of the school year in August, Justice learned that two of his top players — point guard Anna Hammaker and center Cheyanne Hooper — were headed back to Tennessee. Although he was supportive of his players’ decision — encouraging them to do what they felt was best — his team was left in shambles.

“We didn’t just lose two players,” said Justice. “We lost two all-staters. And it was our point guard and our post player.

“When you put together a team, you build around a point guard and post player and then fill in around them.”

So that’s what Justice was dealing with when he looked at his team on the first day of practice and wondered how it would find a way to win five or six games. When junior forward Liz Romeo sat in his living room and suggested that the team’s goal was to win it all again, he just didn’t have the heart to say what was on his mind and tell her she was crazy.

“I hate to burst any kid’s bubble, but I just thought we had so little size, speed and depth,” he said.

The season began with a win over Shady Spring, and after the championship banner was hung in Spartan Gym in Fairlea, the Lady Spartans beat a solid Rockbridge (Va.) team to improve to 2-0.

Two wins became three, then four then five, and at the end of December Greenbrier East was 7-0 after winning the Spartan Holiday Tournament.

Then came the real tests. Hedgesville and Washington visited from the Eastern Panhandle, and East went on the road to face eventual Class AAA runner-up Logan on its home floor.

Only the Logan game was close, and suddenly Greenbrier East was 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class AAA.

“We won three games, and I thought, ‘That’s a good start,’ said Justice. “Then we went on the road and won. Then we played a very good Logan team and won. We just kept winning.”

Next was the Big Atlantic Classic, and after beating St. Albans in the first round, Greenbrier East took on another game it didn’t have to play, subbing in for Nicholas County — which had to stay home because of the weather — and beating a ranked Preston team.

In the finals of the tournament, East met up with a University team coming off a win over Westside, the Renegades’ first loss of the season, and another win, the third over a ranked team, moved the Lady Spartans to 14-0.

The victories piled up as Greenbrier East beat George Washington on a last-second baseline jumper, won again against Logan, this time in Fairlea, and finished off the regular season with victories over Capital, Man, Musselman, Hedgesville and Fayetteville in the course of one week.

The 22-0 regular season was celebrated with cake and a ton of praise from the head coach.

“It was the most improbable thing in sports I’ve ever been around,” said Justice. “The kids know what they achieved. They were the only undefeated team in the history of Greenbrier East, and they did it without two superstars.

“They were like a bunch of junkyard dogs, and they had the best chemistry you could imagine. We won with heart and all the different stuff we were able to run. We pulled every trick out of the hat.”

The run continued in the postseason with wins over Shady Spring and another state tournament participant, Princeton, in the sectional final.

But the trip back to Charleston was derailed before it began. The Lady Spartans were shocked by Capital in the regional co-final with a state tournament berth on the line. The first loss of the season brought the year to a premature close with a 24-1 record.

The state’s No. 1 team, had to stay at home while unranked Capital made the trip to the state tournament.

“There’s still a sting there,” said Justice. “It’s hard to shake off. It was so improbable.

“Everything we did that night went wrong, and Capital just made some unbelievable shots. It was really sad.”

Although it wasn’t the ending he wanted — or the one that would draw movie-goers to the box office — Justice said that one game shouldn’t detract from the other 24.

All of the credit, he said, should go to the players.

If Norman Dale — or Justice — was indeed coaching Hickory High, the fictional team in Hoosiers, Bianca André played the role of Jimmy Chitwood, serving as the superstar who averaged 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game on her way to an first-team all-state selection. Junior Chloe Honaker — who had to be the undersized Ollie — made the most of her 5-foot-5 frame at point guard, playing with hustle and heart to fill the shoes of the departed Hammaker, and Maddie Carroll, undersized at 5-foot-9, battled hard to hold her own in the paint.

Chaunté McDowell had a big season that led to second-team all-state honors, and Romeo, who had what Justice called “the best hands on the team” became a huge factor on both ends of the floor, earning honorable mention all-state recognition.

“Honestly, you can pull just about any adjective out of a hat and it would apply to this team,” said Justice.

n n n

Justice won the honor — in a vote by The Register-Herald sports staff — by beating out Nicholas County’s Tom McGirl, who came in second after leading his team to its first playoff victory. Westside’s Jamie Lusk finished third after taking his team to the Class AA title game, and PikeView’s Karen Miller and Princeton’s Debbie Ball rounded out the top 5.

“There were a lot of great candidates,” said Justice. “This is a big honor.”

— E-mail: chuffman and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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