Something is in the water at James Madison High School.
We said at the beginning of the season that the road back to a state championship game would be difficult, but not impossible. While the Warhawks lost an impressive senior class, to include Grace and Alayna Arnolie, any team that has gotten it done the previous three seasons in convincing fashion is clearly doing something right. Friday night at VCU, the Warhawks got it right once again, defeating Manchester 49-46 in overtime to win their fourth straight state championship.
Early on against the Manchester, it appeared as though Madison might win it in a convincing manner once again. The Lancers scored first, but Madison countered with a 12-2 run for its biggest lead of the game quickly in the opening period. However, like the road back to this point, the game only got harder from there. Hard enough that it took the Warhawks extra innings, and a last-second and-one from Stella Gougoufkas.
“This game was stressful, tough. I thought the girls never gave up. I couldn’t be prouder,” said Head Coach Kirsten Stone.
Forwards Sarah Link (five points, two rebounds, one steal) and Avery Griepentrog (12 points, nine boards) noted after their win over Robinson in the semifinal that help defense in the post was crucial. They had to do the same tonight against Manchester junior forward Mia Woolfolk (16 points, nine rebounds, two blocks), who helped close the gap in the second quarter as the Lancers went into the half only down two.
The Warhawks (25-4) definitely have more experience playing in blowouts than close games, but Stone’s battle-tested team handled the pressure just fine.
“We learn to trust each other, even in the moments that are tight,” said Gougoufkas, who finished with 11 points.
Manchester (22-6) took a few short-lived leads in the third quarter, and went into the fourth down only because of a Sarah Link buzzer-beater that made it 32-31. But Woolfork went to work in the post in the fourth, and guard Finley Weaver (eight points, two steals) got going from beyond the arc to build a seven-point Lancer lead with 4:22 to play.
Gougoufkas, Link, Griepentrog, and Kayla Dixon (20 points, four assists, two steals) all pointed to the perception of this contest as just another game helping them ease some of their nerves as Manchester went on its run. So there wasn’t too much panic, and Madison bounced back quickly to cut the lead to one at 43-42, with 1:42 to play. The Warhawks defense would only allow the Lancers another point in regulation, and the game went to overtime knotted at 44.
When asked about any nervousness going into the extra period Link just said: “It’s still basketball. The second half just got longer.”
Griepentrog added that, “Once the ball goes up, I don’t focus on any stomach pains from nervousness.”
In her fourth state title game, Dixon calmly found teammates for backdoor buckets in the paint to get them right back in it, and it was her pass in the final seconds of overtime to Gougoufkas for the and-one that ultimately won it for them.
“It was not planned,” Dixon said of the play with a laugh. “But glad it worked the way that it did. I think it worked because of chemistry, we knew where everybody was going to be and luckily we hit that last shot. The second I saw them come to help I saw the opening.”
“I was trying to wait for the ball, trying to find the opening. This whole moment is just exciting. We worked really hard to get here,” said Gougoufkas, who sank the free throw after missing two in regulation that could have closed it out.
Manchester Head Coach Rasheed Wright had a lot of praise for the Warhawks after the game. “Their players are more dangerous when they don’t have the basketball.”
Proven, clearly, by Gougoufkas’ bucket. Now the players and the Vienna community are riding high after yet another state title. There were certainly moments this season where a four-peat didn’t seem likely, such as when Madison fell to Oakton in the Concorde Tournament semis.
Stone described all the last four titles as special, and said that “each senior class gives a little more or something different. They’ve taken the steps to get back to the same place. We’ve talked about that a lot.”
With a perfect ending to her high school basketball experience, Dixon expressed a lot of gratitude for the memories she’s made over the last four years, and won’t forget being in a locker room full of hype prior to a game she won’t soon forget.
“The spirit of this season is what I’m going to keep with me.”