By Dan Stillwell
Register-Herald Sports Writer
Who could deny it?
The sky had seemed the limit for Greenbrier East’s girls basketball team, which was returning all five starters from last year’s Class AAA state championship team.
Senior Bianca André was expected to contend for player of the year. Her supporting cast, rapidly improving juniors Chaunté McDowell and Elizabeth Romeo, and stellar sophomores Anna Hammaker and Cheyenne Hooper, would surely give coach Jim Justice as fine a starting five as exists in the state.
Add two fine subs in Chloe Honaker and Maddy Carroll, and the fact that state runner-up Bridgeport and perennial contender North Marion had dropped to Class AA, and things were looking very good indeed for Greenbrier East.
But even the best-laid plans sometimes go astray.
In August, Hammaker and Hooper suddenly transferred back to Knoxville Christian Academy, the school they had attended before last year.
“I hated it for the kids. They didn’t really want to leave,” Justice said. “They are really great kids. But it was a matter of circumstances and jobs.”
Hammaker, a third-team all-stater as a freshman, averaged 15 points and 5.5 assists while Hooper contributed 10 points, 7.7 blocks and 9 rebounds.
Their departure left quite a hole in the East offense and defense.
“When you lose a D-I point guard and a 6-foot-6 post player, you lose an awful lot of stuff,” Justice said. “We started out pretty slow the first week of practice.”
But the Lady Spartans didn’t sit in the bleachers feeling sorry for themselves.
Forwards André (19.8 points, 11.5 rebounds) and McDowell (14 points, 8.5 rebounds), and 2-guard Romeo (8.8 points, 6.2 rebounds) stepped up their games.
Honaker (point guard) and Carroll (center) moved smoothly into starting roles.
Even Justice was surprised when East scrimmaged Blacksburg (Va.) Tuesday night and won by 20 points.
“To be honest, we thought Blacksburg would beat us. But we really dominated the game,” Justice said. “That’s a testimony to the team. They didn’t drop their heads. They’re really getting better.”
Everyone is rebounding, and the green light is on for the Lady Spartans’ outside shooters.
“We’ll have to put it up a whole lot from outside, but that’s a trademark for my teams,” Justice said. “I believe in shooting the 3.
“Liz, Chloe and Bianca are all excellent shooters, and Chaunté now has a solid 3-point shot.”
Beyond the starting five, seven other players are expected to fill roles.
“We’ve turned into a team that has to be real scrappy, defensively. Against Blacksburg we were aggressive and rebounded well.
“These kids believe they can repeat. If you had seen them on Day One you would have said, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“But they like each other, and they’re having fun. They have a wonderful chemistry together.”
So is the coach.
“The challenge of trying to do well with this team is great for me,” said Justice, who also coaches the Spartans’ boys.
“I don’t want anything that’s easy. I love the challenge.”
He believes in his team.
“They took a cannonball to the stomach, but they’re not ready to lay down.”
Greenbrier East opens its season at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night at home against Shady Spring.
— E-mail: dstillwell@