It’s a new, eight-team look for the Potomac this year, which makes for a great district tournament. At the risk of sounding boring we’ll go ahead and anoint the Tuscarora Huskies the favorite. That’s because they haven’t lost a district game in three years.
It’ll be very difficult to keep that streak going this year, but the Huskies have a chance. That’s in no small part due to Kennedy Middleton, one of NOVA’s best players. Middleton scored around 20 points a game last year as a junior and coach Michael Newkirk will again do his best to get the ball to his star whenever he can. The combo guard will be the team’s primary ball-handler, again expected to carry the scoring load. She’s especially dangerous in transition.
Middleton has help. Kennedy’s little sister Isabellah is back as a sophomore after averaging ten a game as a freshman. Senior guard Allie Fitz (8.0 ppg) also returns and Newkirk is also excited to get back junior guard Alyssa Austin. Austin hurt her ankle last year and missed significant time but could be a breakout candidate this year. So might be junior guard Rosi Santos.
The main problem the Huskies could have this year is down low. The graduated Brenna Cochran and Ashley Leonard gave Tuscarora around 16 boards a game last year. That will be difficult for the smallish Huskies to replace–Kennedy Middleton may end up being the team’s best rebounder from the guard position. But while opponents may exploit that weakness they have to be careful Tuscarora doesn’t exploit them worse.
“We’ll go small and create fits for other teams trying to guard us,” Newkirk says. “We’re going to create matchup problems. It’s not going to be easy for opposing bigs to stop Kennedy and our guards.”
The Freedom-South Riding Eagles figure to give the Huskies a great run for their money this year. Freedom’s games with Tuscarora will be fascinating because of a contrast in styles–the Huskies are backcourt-oriented, the Eagles are frontcourt-oriented. The two played once last year with the Huskies prevailing by a bucket and this year’s contests should also be close.
Like Kennedy Middleton, junior Jaelyn Batts (17.9 ppg) is one of the best players in Northern Virginia. By the time she’s a senior she may be the best public school player in the area. A tall, athletic forward who can get out in transition, Batts’ footwork and range continues to improve. As she can already get almost any shot she wants in the paint, that’s bad news for Freedom’s opponents.
“She’s a hard-worker who is willing to work on anything and everything,” says Kaitie Clarkin, a trainer at Evolution basketball who worked with Batts over the offseason. “We focused on shooting, coming off screens and hitting shots, and finishing at the basket. She’s so athletic and strong and is definitely a special player.”
Batts can post up to get buckets but plays a good deal on the wing, which is excellent for her next-level development. Freedom can afford to do this because they have more young talent inside. Junior center Rose Burnham (5.2 ppg) and sophomore power forward Brenna Haley (4.8 ppg) are a tandem few teams in the district will be able to match down low. Both should continue to improve.
The guards will be the key for the Eagles. Departed senior point guard Sydney Kim was a major stabilizing force and her loss will be felt. Sophomore guard Grace Howell (3.1 ppg) is young but has the ability to step up, and senior Shayna Wolin (6.8 ppg) must take pressure off Batts and the posts by scoring from outside.
An interesting dark horse could be the Stone Bridge Bulldogs. The outstanding duo of sophomore Anna LeMaster and senior Muhlenberg-commit Chloe Madgwick return after contributing around 30 points a game off of over 90 three-pointers last year. They figure to be even better, but the rest of the squad will have to improve significantly as well, especially after losing third-leading scorer Emma Harwood to graduation.
“Losing Emma will hurt also from a leadership standpoint,” fourth-year coach Kyle Linder told us. “But, we had several young girls gain valuable experience last year. That’s going to hopefully pay off this season.”
Linder says versatile junior Kyra Lenderman (1.7 ppg), who will spend time at every position at the court, has gotten better guarding LeMaster and Madgwick at practice. Senior point guard Madison Jolly (2.0 ppg) is also back, and those two will have to contribute more on the offensive end. Like most teams in the district the Bulldogs are guard-oriented, but Linder also hopes 5’11” junior returnee Lauren Hines and newcomer Sarah O’Day can stabilize the Bulldogs down low. At the very least they’ll have to rebound to spark the transition game.
“We have to do the little things right and most importantly limit turnovers if we’re going to take another step forward,” Linder says. “A team like Tuscarora is going to be a challenge but we look at playing teams like them as an opportunity.”
The John Champe Knights are still young despite only losing three seniors off last year’s squad, so the team likely will take a while to gel. Especially since a couple of those seniors (Blair Thompson, Julie Bielecki) were major contributors. But coach Zach Beebe has talent.
The Knights were better last year in games point guard Anvitha Anumolu pushed double figures in scoring. Now a junior, she’ll almost have to step up and do that on most nights if the Knights are to be a factor. With so many returnees, Beebe does have ample candidates to step up and give Anumolu support, however. Sophomore guard Reagan Moore is back after a good AAU season and could also push double digits in scoring.
Beebe says junior twin guards Alex and Sam Kelley came on at the end of last year. They will get every opportunity to play major minutes this year. The Knights have a deep and talented junior class which also features center Erin Moore, among others. The Knights have to hope she’s over a back injury that derailed her progress last year. (Correction: Moore will not play this year because of her back)
Somewhat undersized like Stone Bridge and other local teams, Coach Beebe sounded a lot like Coach Linder when we asked what his team has to do to succeed. “We have to do the little things well,” he said. “We’ll control the ball but we have to get it, first. All five of us have to box out and we have to get those loose balls.”
The optimism of first-year coaches Josh Pierce of the Rock Ridge Phoenix and Raven Short of the Briar Woods Falcons is readily apparent when you speak to them. Both think some may make the mistake of sleeping on their squads this year. You can count on one hand the games Rock Ridge won last season, but Pierce does have a good deal going for him in his debut season here after coaching previously in Orlando and Pittsburgh.
Most everybody is back from last year including guard Ashley Dean, a four-year varsity senior in the program who regularly hit double figures in scoring last season. She’ll have help in the backcourt from juniors Tiffany Martirossian and Brooke Beaton. Three sophomores are on the roster from last season plus 5’5″ fellow soph guard Kayla Davis, who Pierce thinks is ready to contribute significantly right now.
Although they remain fairly young and have to learn a new system, the continuity of all the players returning should help the Phoenix. “We’ll have to play lock-down defense,” Pierce says. “We do that and I believe we’re gonna be better than people think.”
Meanwhile, people might underestimate Briar Woods not because the Falcons weren’t successful last year, but because they lost their top five leading scorers plus two other seniors. Short, a former standout guard at Potomac Falls, couldn’t care less, however.
“We have a lot of good athletes here with a ton of pure speed. They’re hungry to start, and I’m eager to get them out in transition. ‘Run as One’ is our motto.”
Junior point guard Sara Duffie (4.6 ppg) returns and will spur the Falcon attack. Sophomore guard Megan Caufield and junior guard Abigayle Larson didn’t get a ton of minutes last year but both learned from practicing with the varsity and give Short more options in the backcourt. While Short has rebounding concerns, she does add forward Abby Wickerham, a junior transfer from Ohio, and has young center Emma Nathan back as well. Nathan’s younger sister joins the team this year and should also contribute.
Junior wing Ashton Keilholtz (3.0 ppg) returns, and Short expects newcomer Camryn Adkins to have a significant impact .So while Briar Woods lost a ton of talent from last year, it also has a solid core back that got to practice against that talent. That may pay off at some point this year.
The Potomac Falls Panthers will again be fairly young this year. They’ll play a deliberate style and have enough young talent where they’ll be able to surprise some teams if they keep the score manageable. The Panthers lost seven seniors, though, so probably need the better part of this season to find themselves.
Still, junior forward Natalie Brennen (8.2 ppg) returns, as does senior guard Jalyn Reid (7.0 ppg). That’s a great start, but Potomac Falls’ ceiling probably depends on sophomore guard returnees Ashley Pandelides and Casey O’Connor. They show a lot of potential, but are they ready to step up and score more as well as take care of the ball consistently?
Finally, not sure what is going on with the Broad Run Spartans, who showed improvement late in the year with a 14-point win on the road at Potomac Falls. The athletic department instructed second-year coach Chazzy Morris to direct any questions about the squad to the AD, and we couldn’t get a roster for the team.
But, to our knowledge Broad Run returns athletic junior guard Jade Roberts (12.5 ppg), senior guard Bridget O’Brien (5.1 ppg) and talented freshman guard Abigail Neff (4.3 ppg). If there are no significant chemistry issues, the team has the talent to improve considerably on its three-win season of a year ago.