By Cam Huffman
Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice said early in the season that his team doesn’t want to go to Charleston just for a shopping trip. The 2012 state champion Lady Spartans plan on making a run in the Class AAA state tournament.
But after falling short in the regional co-final last winter — after an undefeated season and a No. 1 state ranking — senior Liz Romeo admitted it just feels good to be back.
“Going back this year means everything, because that loss was so unlikely and unexpected,” she said after the Lady Spartans knocked off George Washington in the region co-final last week. “Being the No. 2 seed is a blessing, and we’re really excited.”
There are, however, a group of five seniors — three of whom have been major parts of Greenbrier East’s recent success — that don’t want it to end yet.
The first step for East (23-1), whose only loss this season came to top-seeded Parkersburg South in the Big Atlantic Classic, is a quarterfinal game against No. 7 seed Cabell Midland today at 11:15 a.m. at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Knights (18-6) went on the road to St. Albans last week and pulled off an upset victory to punch their ticket to Charleston. They’ve won nine of their last 11 games.
Sophomore guards Summer Stephenson and Haley Haggerty came up big against St. Albans, and Cabell Midland, which is making its first tournament appearance in 15 years, also has some size inside in the form of Emily Pitkin and Sierra Jordan.
Greenbrier East’s clear leader is Chaunté McDowell a senior guard, who’s averaging 21 points per game. She’s capable of scoring 20 or 30 points a night, but she’s also adept at feeding her teammates when a defense tries to take her away.
“She’s really, really unselfish, and I’m really proud of her for that,” said Justice, who labeled his senior as a state player of the year candidate. “Chaunté is a very quality player.”
Inside, East has a huge advantage in 6-foot-4 junior center Sydney Nunley, who is averaging 14 points per outing and makes a huge difference in blocking shots and grabbing rebounds.
“Sydney has come a long way,” said Justice. “Early in the season, she stayed in foul trouble and missed all kinds of shots. But she’s really, really worked on that, and she’s really improved.”
Senior point guard Chloe Honaker runs the offense, and Justice said she’s started to find her outside shot again after some early struggles. Sophomore guard Lexi Tincher “hustles all the time,” and the Spartans have also received a boost from the return of Romeo, who’s averaged eight points per game after rejoining the team at midseason.
“I just think Liz is a wonderful, wonderful kid,” said Justice of his 5-7 guard, who moved to Florida in the offseason but eventually returned home. “It’s been so good for her to be back here, and she’s grinning from ear to ear. She’s a big contributor, always.
“She was playing on a team down there, but they weren’t very strong. She came back, and she wasn’t in very good shape. It’s taken a good while.”
Off the bench, the Spartans are led by sophomore forward Taylor Hill, whom Justice said is “always on the boards,” and Ellen Henthorn, a senior, is “as rough and tough a rebounder and defender as we have.”
The winner of today’s game will play the winner between third-seeded Huntington and sixth-seeded Morgantown Friday at 9 p.m.
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