Talk of playing in the state tournament may be relevant again for the Liberty girls basketball team.
During the 2010-2011 season, the Eagles won
the Class AA Division 4 state championship with two eventual NCAA Division I women's stars in Liz Wood
and Jazmon Gwathmey
. Also led by Wood, the Eagles made 2011-12 AA D-3 state final
, losing to R.E. Lee (Staunton).
After several solid but unspectacular years — at least by the lofty standards of 2011 and 2012 – Liberty should content for a state bid again this season.
The Eagles return four starters from last fall, including dominating guards Ashley Lane and Makaela Kestner, whose stock as an NCAA Division I recruit is soaring as only a sophomore.
Given another year of physical maturity and experience, and some talented newcomers, the Eagles appear to be a top contender to win the title in a restructured Conference 22 and make a deep playoff run.
Liberty was excellent last winter, going 16-8 and advancing to the Group 4A North regional tournament.
Coach Ryan Washington said the Eagles should more formidable this season, noting her roster possesses an array of weaponry.
“I think our major strong point is we have gotten faster. We've [also] added height,” Washington said. “It helps all of our starters return, and the sixth man returns. Our returners are smarter [and have] gotten more confident.
“My five can change from game-to-game depending on who we play,” the coach said of the increased versatility. “We have the ability to match anyone because we are so diverse. It is so exciting I have those options this year. I have nine players who can get major minutes.”
The perimeter trio of senior Lane
, junior Sydney Williams and sophomore Kestner
leads the way. All three are capable of scoring and distributing the ball throughout a potentially lethal arsenal. Lane and Kestner earned first-team all-Conference 22 honors a year ago, with Williams a second-team choice.
Lane is entering her fourth season as a starter and primary point guard. She said a palpable excitement permeates the Eagles’ preparations for their Dec. 8 opening game against visiting Handley.
“I am extremely excited,” she said. “We have a ton of new talent that has come up, and it's going to be a really good season. We are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
Lane hopes to help lead the way.
“Being my last season, I have to give more than I've ever given to this team,” she said. “I want to focus on being a better leader on the court and off the court. Helping my team be as good as it could be.
“We are doing a really good job of being closer this year,” she said of team sleepovers and meals. “We are really focusing on team chemistry.”
Kestner, after a successful freshman campaign as a speedy and athletic guard, spent her summer honing her skill set.
She joined an AAU team sponsored by the nationally-known Boo Williams organization in Virginia. Her team played in several national tournaments.
In the process, the 5-foot-11 Kestner emerged as a national recruit with an almost certain NCAA Division I future. For now, she wants to play as many games as she can for Liberty this season.
“I want to go further than we did last year,” Kestner said. “I feel we can if we all play the way we are able” we can earn a state berth.
“We will do really well if we move the ball around and take good shots,” she said.
Her ball-handling and speed are huge assets, and she also displayed a deadly outside shot as a freshman.
While her speed provides a lot of breakaway layups, Kestner hopes to score on more drives out of the set offense and in other ways. That scoring mindset could make the Eagles even more deadly, since Liberty has other weapons as well.
“I want to be more aggressive and take more shots,” said Kestner. “Just from playing AAU over the summer.
“Playing with girls I know who are going somewhere and [will] be big,” she said. “That's made me pick up my game and be more aggressive.”
Junior Madison Humphries and freshman Maggie Williams provide quality perimeter depth.
Inside, the veteran senior duo of Jerrin Garnett and Allison Croushorn provide a strong presence under both backboards. Junior returnee Olivia Wright and freshman Kinsley Lewis also will see considerable front court time.
Washington repeatedly noted the team's increased speed. That particular asset allows the Eagles to strengthen an already strong point.
“We are going to build on the principles we used last year, which is to use tenacious defense and get out and run and score quick,” she said. “In order to be a great and tenacious defense, you have to have some speed.
“Offensively, we have a few sets,” she said. “Nothing really set up to go to particular players yet. We are trying to build basketball smarts where when we give that shell play, they can run that 12 or 14 things off of it.”
Washington said the revamped Conference 22 alignment is difficult to judge, but the Eagle schedule has plenty of challenges to prepare for postseason play.
Gone from the league are Chancellor, Courtland and King George. John Champe and Freedom replaced them, joining Liberty, Fauquier and Kettle Run for a five-team league.
Handley, Millbrook and Mountain View are on Liberty’s non-conference slate to toughen the Eagles.
“We tried to load our out-of-conference schedule,” Washington said. “If for some reason our conference lacks, we have these teams to give the boost we need to get where we want to be.
Last season ended for Liberty with a lopsided loss
to William Fleming in the region quarterfinals.
“Regionals left a nasty taste in our mouth,” Washington said.
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Projected starting lineup
G Ashley Lane, Sr.*
G Makaela Kestner, So.*
G Sydney Williams, Jr.*
F Allison Croushorn, Sr.*
C/F Kinsley Lewis, Fr.