By Steve Keenan
Returning to the state tournament Thursday for the first time since 2009, some things haven’t changed for the Fayetteville High girls.
Sure, there are new faces in the rotation, but the Pirates will still face a formidable foe in the first round. In 2009, FHS fell 91-60 to No. 1 St. Joseph in the quarterfinal round, and St. Joseph eventually won the first of five straight titles.
This time around for Fayetteville, it’s No. 2 seed St. Marys who will stand in the way first.
The No. 7 Pirates will clash with the Blue Devils at 1 p.m. Thursday in the opening round of the Class A portion of the tournament at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
St. Marys, seeded behind only a St. Joseph squad in search of its sixth consecutive championship, logged a sterling 22-1 record this season, with the lone blemish coming at the hands of Wheeling Central.
Coach Howard Meeks, in his seventh season, envisioned somewhat of a slower start this year because, although he has seven seniors, most didn’t have varsity experience as the campaign tipped off in December. “I expected a couple of losses by Christmas time. We kind of grew as the season went along.”
St. Marys rolled up win after win, standing at 19-0 when it faced Wheeling Central on Feb. 21, an outing that resulted in a 58-37 setback. Meeks said his girls “went up there expecting it to be too easy. It was definitely a wakeup call.”
The Blue Devils have enjoyed a solid tournament run in recent years, with 2013-14 being their fourth appearance in the small schools state tourney in the past five seasons.
In 2010, 2011 and 2013, St. Marys was runner-up to St. Joseph, which Meeks likened to a “national AAU” basketball program, and last year the Blue Devils were bounced in the region co-final by Wheeling Central, the eventual state runner-up.
Fayetteville, meanwhile, will be stepping onto the Civic Center floor for the first time since that 2009 defeat.
Of the Pirates, Meeks said, “Congratulations to Coach (John Mark) Kincaid and the girls. We know what it’s like to be from a small town.”
He said he saw a relatively young Fayetteville squad play Buffalo in the West Virginia Hometown Invitational Tournament finals at St. Marys on Feb. 1, which resulted in a 59-52 Bison victory. “They (Fayetteville) struggled a little on offense in the first half against Buffalo, but they really impressed me with their never-say-die attitude and their athleticism.”
In St. Marys, Kincaid says his Pirates will face “a really talented, pretty impressive looking team.”
He said the Blue Devils run well in transition and are also productive in the half-court set. “It’s pick-your-poison. We’ve got to get back on defense, and we’ve got to keep the big girl (leading scorer Kendra Walker) off the boards and keep a body on her.”
Leading the Blue Devils is Walker, a 6-foot-4 senior center who averages 18.2 points per game. Others in the starting lineup include sophomore guard Ashley Hall (15.1 ppg), senior guard Mikaela Britton (10.2 ppg), senior forward Haley Everett (2.0 ppg) and senior guard Tari Ashworth (2.5 ppg).
Other main contributors include two freshmen — Jordan Fox (10.0 ppg) and Jenna Nichols (5.6 ppg).
Everett and Nichols are among the most successful defenders, Meeks said.
Fayetteville will counter with Maddie Pritt (12.6 ppg and 4.1 rpg), freshman Kendall Malay (12.6 ppg and 7.6 rpg), senior Avina Sedlock (10.1 ppg and 4.3 rpg), junior Kaitlyn Sisler (4.3 ppg) and sophomore Kathryn Peelish (4.0 ppg and 4.0 rpg).
Main reserves include sophomore Kaylee Wood (3.7 ppg and 5.4 rpg), freshman Faith Norris (2.1 ppg) and freshman Hannah Franklin (1.5 ppg).
Pritt and Malay have been battling injuries, and Sisler missed Monday’s practice due to illness.
“I think by Thursday we should be full-tilt,” Kincaid said.
“I’m real excited we’re going to go down,” said Pritt, a junior who will graduate early. “If our team actually plays like we know we’re capable, we should be okay.
“We’re all real comfortable with each other and play as a team pretty good.”
What’s her goal? “I want to push my team as far as they can go.”
“It will be the hardest competition we’ve seen all year,” said Sedlock. “I’m just proud we made it.”
Looking back to the Region 3 co-final game with Sherman, Sedlock said, “I did get nervous. I thought it was going to be like another Midland Trail game (48-47 loss in section final after having a large lead early). We had to keep ourselves together.”
“We need to go down there and have fun and do our best, and step it up another whole level,” Sedlock added.
“I’m real excited,” said Sisler. “It took a lot of hard work and dedication and working our butts off.
“We worked as a team and didn’t depend on one person.”
“I think we have a really good chance, but it’s gonna be a hard game,” Sisler added.
“I’m pretty nervous because St. Marys is a good team,” Peelish said. “We feel pretty good about it because of our defense.
“We have a pretty quick point guard in Maddie, and Kendall is real strong underneath. We have a lot of fast and strong players. We just need to play our hardest.”
“We worked our butts off at practice and didn’t slack off,” Malay said of the season.
The key, she says, will be “to work as a team and not get discouraged. We need to be up and keep in the right (frame of mind).”
As a freshman, she expects to feel some nerves. “But I know once I get on the floor I’ll do fine.”
St. Marys defeated Clay-Battelle, Trinity and Magnolia in the postseason.
Fayetteville advanced out of the section losers’ bracket, falling 48-47 to Midland Trail in the section final before defeating Sherman 57-51 in the region co-final contest.
“They look ready,” Kincaid said of his team.
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