Girls' basketball outlook: Millbrook, James Wood to look a lot different

The area girls’ basketball scene is going through some big changes this year, and not just because teams will be playing a condensed schedule in mostly empty gyms due to COVID-19 concerns.

Millbrook — which has won at least a share of 11 straight Northwestern District regular-season titles and played in five straight state tournaments — lost four players who started on last year’s 27-3 team that advanced to the Class 4 state semifinals.

James Wood — which shared last year’s district regular-season title with Millbrook — lost five players who started for last year’s team, which went 22-5 and set a school record for victories.

One of those personnel losses was unexpected for new Colonels head coach Sanford Silver, who takes over for Krista Crites after she left for a teaching job in Moorefield, W.Va., after seven years at the helm. Silver said sophomore guard Brynna Nesselrodt will not play this season after suffering an injury earlier this month. He said she will have surgery soon.

The third Frederick County team will look similar though, and the Sherando players’ familiarity with each other will certainly give the Warriors (13-11, 8-6 Class 4 Northwestern District) a chance to be a stronger contender among district competition this year. The Warriors bring back 11 players who combined for 1,021 of the team’s 1,063 points last year.

Of course, it remains to be seen if any of the local schools will actually get to play this winter. Each of the three local school divisions — Frederick County, Winchester (Handley), and Clarke County — will make a decision on whether to go through with winter sports after they return from their respective winter breaks on Jan. 4. If they do give the green light, it’s unclear when games will actually start.

If they want to participate in the Virginia High School League postseason, they have until the regional start date of Feb. 8 to complete the regular season. The VHSL regular season started on Monday.

If local teams do get to have a season, the focus will be on playing district games. In the eight-school Class 4 Northwestern District, only Culpeper County has elected not to delay its winter sports season until January. In the eight-school Bull Run District, only Strasburg, Stonewall Jackson and Rappahannock County will participate in games prior to New Year’s Day.

At Millbrook, the Pioneers lost three all-district selections and current NCAA Division II players in forward Ali Hauck (Shippensburg), guard Emily Magee (Frostburg State) and forward Cianna Harrison, who Pioneers head coach Erick Green Sr. said will enroll in Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina for the spring semester.

The Pioneers do return Class 4 Second Team All-State point guard Avery O’Roke, though. The junior was second in the area last year in scoring (21.4 points per game), led the area in field goal percentage (54.7 percent) and 3-point percentage (34.7 percent) and added 2.2 assists and 3.1 steals per game.

Another critical piece is sophomore Kennedi Rooks, who missed the first nine games last winter and developed into a starter by the end of the season. A Second Team All-Area selection, the 6-foot-1 Rooks (7.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 2.3 steals) will be looked to by Green to set the tone in the post for Millbrook now that Hauck is gone.

Among the newcomers, Green said 5-10 sophomore forward Kayleen Todd could make an impact as Millbrook looks to remain atop the Class 4 Northwestern District (the Pioneers have won all three Class 4 NWD tournament titles) and stay among the Class 4 elite.

“My [veterans] aren’t trying to be the one to break the streak [of district titles],” Green said. “They get it. They’re like, ‘the pressure’s on us,’ but they’re stepping up and working hard. I think they’ll step up to the challenge to defend that championship.”

A veteran Sherando squad should be near the top after struggling with injuries throughout the 2019-20 season.

The Warriors return All-Region 4C Second Team selection Grace Burke, a sophomore guard who ranked fourth in the area in scoring (12.7 points), led the area in 3-pointers (64) and averaged 2.3 assists; junior forward Ella Carlson (Second Team All-District, 7.3 points, second in the area with 7.8 rebounds); and senior guard Haley Mack (All-Area Honorable Mention, 9.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists).

Sherando second-year coach Brooklyn Wilson said many of her players competed in a five-week fall league held in October and November at Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy, which also featured teams made up of players from James Wood and Clarke County.

“I think we’re capable of a lot,” Wilson said. “Me, and the coaching staff, and the girls are really excited. I think last year we had a lot of talent and a lot of skill. But we were plagued by injuries, so it was really hard to get everything together that we were planning on and working towards. I think this year we’re just excited to hopefully keep everybody healthy and put into practice some of the stuff that we had tried to set up last year.”

James Wood heads into this year without all four of its all-district selections from last year, including two-time Winchester Star Player of the Year and First Team All-State selection Makayla Firebaugh, who is starting for NCAA Division I Rider University.

The Colonels — who beat four teams in one day to win the tournament championship at the conclusion of the five-week fall league — still have plenty of strong players, though. Senior guard Brooklyn Crate averaged 6.3 points per game, and Silver is expecting big things from junior point guard Gabby Valentinetti, who played at Sherando as a freshman and suited up for Silver’s Shenandoah Valley Christian Athletics team last winter.

“I think the strengths for us are going to be our speed, our tougher defense, and stretching the floor,” Silver said. “[The fall league] was extremely helpful. We lost a game starting out and had to battle back, and we beat Sherando, Skyline and Page County, and then Clarke County in the championship game. We were very resilient.

“The workouts that the players did over the summer definitely paid off. I think we’ve got something good and exciting to look forward to.”

Handley went only 3-20 last year, and will be without sophomore point guard Jadyn Washington for the season due to an injury.

But second-year head coach Randolph Martin does return most of his main contributors from last year’s team, including all-district Honorable Mention senior forward Tierney Finley (team-high averages of 9.4 points and 6.6 rebounds) and sophomore forward Lauren Hogan (7.5 points, 5.8 rebounds). Senior newcomer Clyna Randall, who has focused on AAU ball in the past, will start at point guard.

As for the rest of the Class 4 Northwestern District, Fauquier brings back a First Team District selection in Skyler Furr and a Second Team pick in Makayla Foddrell from a team that went 14-9 (9-5 district) last year.

In the Bull Run District, Clarke County is another team that was hit hard by both graduation and injury. The Eagles had four players average between 8.0 and 10.6 points per game last year, and three of them are gone, including one unexpectedly. Junior guard Ellie Brumback — an All-Area Honorable Mention selection last year who averaged 8.0 points and led the Eagles in rebounds (6.2), assists (2.5) and steals (3.0) — suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in fall league competition and will not play this winter.

However, Clarke County does return senior Alison Sipe, a Second Team all-district guard/forward who led the Eagles in scoring (10.6 ppg) and ranked second in rebounding (5.7).

Eagles head coach Regina Downing said Brumback is a huge loss because of her hustle, leadership and ballhandling (Downing said the ball was in Brumback’s hands about 90 percent of the time). But Downing thinks this year’s team has a lot of capable ballhandlers who can help them play at a faster pace on offense. Downing said playing about 15 games in the five-week league at SVCA helped greatly with that for an Eagles team that went 9-15 overall and sixth in the Bull Run with a 5-9 record last year.

“Everybody’s going to have to step up and handle the ball,” Downing said. “The person who pulls the rebound, she’s going to lead us and we’ll just run our lanes. The kind of offensive style we’re trying to run, we’re not going to have to set up an offense, because we’re quick. But if the break opportunity isn’t there, we’ll just go right into our offense.”

The following is a glance at each team:

Millbrook

Coach: Erick Green Sr., fifth season.

Last year: 27-3 (13-1 Class 4 Northwestern District); district regular-season co-champions; district tournament champions; lost to Monacan in Class 4 state semifinals.

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