2012 Top 10: Pioneers’ record-setting run the top sports story of the year
WINCHESTER — The Millbrook girls’ basketball team’s first two state championship victories were made for the big screen.
Both games included rocky starts. Both games saw them trailing at halftime. Both games featured signature performances from star guard Courtni Green. Both games saw the starters and reserves alike shine in key moments to help Millbrook rally to victory.
But as impressive as Millbrook’s heart, desire and determination was in those wins, the 79-0 record the Pioneers carried into the 2012 Group AA, Division 4 state title game wasn’t defined by their ability to come back.
With few exceptions, it was defined by their ability to control virtually every minute of every game. And appropriately, a team for their ages went out with the perfect homage to their unparalleled excellence, which saw them set Virginia High School League girls’ basketball records for consecutive state titles (three) and consecutive wins (80), and for the third straight year, selection as The Winchester Star sports staff’s No. 1 story of the year.
With a 63-38 win over previously undefeated Courtland in the final at the Virginia Commonwealth University Siegel Center in Richmond, Millbrook showed the state everything that made it so special. The Pioneers trailed 8-4 after three minutes and 14 seconds, but Millbrook responded with a vintage 25-8 run over the next nine minutes and seven seconds for a 29-16 lead.
The Pioneers led by eight at halftime and 13 after three quarters before stomping out the hopes of Courtland — which made just 17 of 56 field goals (30.4 percent) against Millbrook’s suffocating defense — in the fourth quarter.
The Pioneers’ third straight state title improved Millbrook’s record to 30-0 in 2011-12 and 80-0 over three years, a truly historic accomplishment. The Pioneers set down Haysi’s record of 78 straight wins — which had stood since 1951 — with their 63-31 win over Carroll County in the state semifinals.
Fittingly, Millbrook’s final victory of its historic run was led by its Big Three of Green and fellow seniors Alisha Mobley, a forward, and Sara Mead, a point guard. Green and Mobley posted identical lines of 21 points, 13 rebounds, two steals and one block, and Mead had 13 points, five rebounds, five steals and four assists.
Green (now competing for NCAA Division I University of Delaware), Mead (Division I Colombia University) and Mobley (Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University) were each named first-team All-Group AA, All-Region II and All-Northwestern District in their final season.
For Green, 2011-12 was the end of one of the most impressive careers of any athlete in state history. She was named Group AA state player in each of her last three years and she finished third all-time in VHSL career scoring (2,626 points) and first in steals (631). She was also The Winchester Star Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year for the fourth time this season, averaging 29.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.8 steals, 4.0 assists and 1.9 blocks her senior year. Her number 22 is now retired and affixed to the Casey Gymnasium wall.
As the clock wound down in the state final, many in the crowd of 5,000 cheered Millbrook’s stars as they were pulled off the court by head coach Debby Sanders, with the loudest ovation saved for Green when she departed with nine seconds left. Fans chanted “three-peat!” during the final minute and continued to cheer wildly during the trophy ceremony. The applause was well-deserved for a team that outscored opponents 82.6 to 36.6 in 2011-12 while producing more than 23 steals a game.
The Pioneers saw their 84-game winning streak snapped on Dec. 8 by Group AAA Battlefield by the score of 44-42, but Millbrook’s not done winning games yet. The Pioneers have gotten off to a 9-1 start in 2011-2012.
But the team with seniors Green, Mobley, Mead, Lisa Merriman, Danielle Banks, Diauna Farrish, and Stephanie Hernandez, juniors Ky Rooks, Ashley Goodman, Allie Wishart, Amanda Barlow and Brooke Borlie, and freshman Casey Ackerman, will always have a unique place in history.
“They're competitors,” said Sanders in the postgame press conference after the state final. “They show up to play every night. It doesn’t matter who the opponent is.
“Their will to win is unlike any I’ve ever seen. That’s going to take them far in life. They do this on and off the floor. [What’s made this possible is] their will to win and be the best they can be.”
2. VHSL moves to six classifications
On Oct. 16, the proposal that VHSL executive director Ken Tilley said would be the “most significant step the league has taken in more than 40 years,” became official: the VHSL would expand to six classifications for the 2013-2014 season and abandon the three-group classification model that had been in place since the early 1970s. The VHSL’s member schools voted that day to go forward with the plan after the VHSL executive committee approved it by a 23-3 vote on Sept. 19
The VHSL announced in January that it would explore such a move, and over the ensuing months it held numerous meetings with its members and released numerous documents regarding how schools would be grouped and what the postseason structure might look like.
Until this proposal was made, football was the only sport divided into six classifications. The VHSL made the move because of the large disparity in school enrollment sizes that could often be found in three-classification matchups.
If the VHSL continued to use three classifications, the largest school would be nearly twice as large as the smallest in both Group AAA and Group AA. In Group A, the largest schools would have around 720 students, about 250 more than the mid-sized Group A schools. In the new format, there’s a difference of 1,038 students between the largest and smallest 6A schools, 381 between the largest and smallest 5A, 350 for 4A, 362 for 3A, 234 for 2A, and the largest school in IA will only have 473 students.
As a result of this change, the VHSL is maintaining district play for regular season scheduling purposes, and is allowing every school in the state to compete in a new level of postseason competition, the “conference” level.
But by doing this, tradition is taking a huge hit. The automatic region berth that used to coming with winning a district regular season title will no longer exist, and each district will need to decide if it’s even worth having district tournaments, because everyone is going to make the conference tournament regardless of what you do in district play.
The conference format will also create new postseason rivalries. James Wood, Millbrook and Sherando will be grouped in Conference 21 of the Group 4A North Region along with Dominion, Heritage, Loudoun County, Park View and Woodgrove. Handley will be in Conference 23 of the 4A North with Charlottesville, Fluvanna, Louisa County, Amherst County and Harrisonburg. Clarke County will be in Group 2A East Region, Conference 35 with Madison County, George Mason, Strasburg, Stonewall Jackson, Luray and Page County.
For team sports, the top two in each conference will move on to regionals, and the top two in each region will move on to a state final four.
3. SU continues move into new era
When Shenandoah University announced in September of 2010 that it was leaving the USA South Conference, the home for most of its sports programs, for the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, it seemed inevitable there would be some changes.
The announcement on Nov. 12 that Paul Barnes had been released from his position as head football coach was the biggest of all, and it further underscored the fact SU will be counting on a lot of new blood as it seeks to make its mark in a more competitive conference.
Six of the school’s 14 head coaches since the announcement are no longer with SU, including the head coaches of three of the school’s biggest programs. Rob Harris resigned and was replaced by Rob Pryor last year (men’s basketball), Michelle Guyant-Holloway resigned this summer and was replaced by C.K. Calhoun (women’s basketball), and SU is still in the process of looking for Barnes’ replacement.
Former athletic director Wayne Edwards, who was the main driving force in getting SU into the ODAC, officially retired in May and has been replaced by Doug Zipp, who officially began working at SU on July 1.
In dismissing Barnes, Zipp definitely made a noteworthy change, mostly because of Barnes’ longevity. Barnes was an assistant for Walter Barr when SU restarted its football program in 2000, and no one had spent as many years as a head coach at SU as Barnes (11), who won back-to-back conference championships in his second and third seasons and led the Hornets to the NCAA Division III playoffs in 2004.
But with Barnes recording just one winning season and a 21-59 record the last eight years (41-70 record for 11 seasons), Zipp made it clear that if the Hornets are going to be in the ODAC, they need to be competitive.
The Hornets have a long way to go to challenge for titles, which is something it knew going in.
This fall marked the start of SU’s first full year in the ODAC, and only field hockey (11-8 overall, 4-4 ODAC, advanced to ODAC semifinals) and women’s soccer (9-11-1, 6-5-1, ODAC semifinals) finished high in the conference. The football team went 1-9 overall (0-7 ODAC), men’s soccer went 3-13-2 (1-9-1), volleyball went 13-16 (4-7) and men’s and women’s cross country each placed seventh in the ODAC Championships.
With young squads, women’s basketball (5-6, 1-2, four straight wins) and men’s basketball (3-8, 0-3, four straight losses) have had mixed results.
4. Handley girls’ track and field team wins state title
Make no mistake, Millbrook’s girls’ basketball team wasn’t the only team with a dynamic Big Three this year.
Led by seniors Britani Myers and Verna Hilaire-Lee and junior Lisa Meneau, the Handley girls’ track and field team won its first Group AA state title since 1992.
In the meet held in June at Harrisonburg High School, that trio remarkably played a role in five event wins and they scored all but 2.5 of Handley’s 64 points, which were more than enough to beat runner-up E.C. Glass’s 53.
Myers — the school record-holder in the 400 meters and the 800 and now running at Virginia Tech — won the 400 in a personal-best 56.18 to win by 0.24 seconds and tied a personal-best in the 800 with a 2:14.58 to win by 0.61. Myers was also The Winchester Star Girls’ Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Hilaire-Lee — the school-record holder in the 100 and 200 and now running at Virginia Commonwealth University — won the 200 in 24.97 to win by 0.01 and took third in the 100 in 12.13. Hilaire-Lee’s best times in the 100 and 200 this year were 12.07 and 24.48, respectively.
Meneau won the 300 hurdles in a personal-best 43.51 to win by 2.19 seconds and took second in the 110 hurdles with a personal-best 14.77.
The trio also teamed up with senior Lillie Matthews to win the 4x100 in a state-record time of 48.04 seconds, breaking the record of 48.28 set in 2002.
In a year in which Handley also claimed the Region II title and the Northwestern District title, Judges coach Mike McKiernan couldn’t have been happier to see his girls blaze to glory
“I know it’s a cliché, but they’re tough,” McKiernan said. “When we show up to a meet, they compete. They’re there to compete.”
5. Virginia Tech’s Erick Green is the nation’s leading scorer
Duke may be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country and the early struggles down the road at Chapel Hill may have Tar Heels fans wringing their hands, but the biggest story coming out of the ACC so far this season resides in Blacksburg.
With 12 straight games of 20 points or more to open the season, former Millbrook High School star and current Virginia Tech men’s basketball standout Erick Green is leading the nation in scoring at 25.4 points per game.
Green, who helped lead the Pioneers win a state championship as a junior in 2008, actually contemplated transferring after head coach Seth Greenberg was fired in the offseason but decided to stay when it was announced that former Hokies assistant James Johnson would succeed him.
It’s turned out to be one of the best decisions he could have made.
After a summer spent competing against some of the best college players in the country, including winning a 3-on-3 game against a team led by Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, and given a newfound freedom in Johnson’s system, Green has flourished.
He opened the season with 21 points in a win over East Tennessee State — which just so happens to be his lowest scoring output of the season — and has only gotten better with each passing game.
He set a career high with 26 in a win over UNC Greensboro in just the fourth game of the season and he’s already matched or surpassed that mark five other times, including a his current career high of 31 points in an overtime win over Bradley on Dec. 22.
He’s done it by improving his shooting percentage (.438 to .516), his free-throw percentage (82.8 to 86.5) and by making a living at the charity stripe (he is averaging 8.7 free throws per game).
And with the Hokies’ hot start — they are 9-3 and have a win over then-No. 15 Oklahoma State — Green not only has Virginia Tech in the mix for a tournament berth but also has thrust himself into talks of being a possible NBA Draft pick.
Nothing is for certain, but if Green can continue to play the way he has, big things seem to be in his future.
“It’s very exciting,” said Green’s father, Erick Green Sr., in a phone interview earlier this month. “We wanted him to think like he’s one of the best in the country, and he’s gone out and competed like one.”
6. Handley boys’ basketball returns to state tournament
Coming off a season in which it did not even qualify for the playoffs, it would have been easy to write off the Handley boys’ basketball team’s chances.
It also would have been very foolish.
With a roster loaded with talented seniors and underclassmen intent on guiding the program back to prominence, the Judges made the 2011-2012 season one to remember.
From a four-game winning streak to start the season to a big win over the host school in the championship game of the Fluvanna County Tournament over the holiday break, Handley made it clear early on that this was not the same team from past years.
The Judges rebounded from road losses to Skyline and Millbrook to capture the Northwestern District regular season title and then showed they could win playing any style in the district tournament.
They beat a Hawks team determined to play a grind-it-out game when junior Jacob Rudolph came up with two big steals late in the game to preserve a 40-39 semifinal victory before rallying back against up-and-down Sherando to win 61-54 behind a strong second half from senior Chris Skinner in the title game.
Wins over Woodgrove (65-51) and Monticello (66-62) helped them not only advance to the Region II, Division 4 finals but also qualify for the Group AA, Division 3 state tournament for the first time since 2009.
The Judges would eventually see their season come to an end at the hands of powerhouse Brunswick (63-38) but it did not diminish what they had accomplished.
They finished 19-6 on the season, a remarkable improvement from their 9-10 and 10-8 showings the two seasons before, and returned Handley to the top of the district standings.
“It was our goal [to be successful] and I think we’ve left Handley in a good place,” said senior Derek Dowrey after the loss to Brunswick. “I’m very confident in our underclassmen to take it farther next year.”
7. Sherando’s Ross Metheny transfers to South Alabama
While he admitted that the decision to transfer from the University of Virginia to South Alabama was not an easy one, Ross Metheny would be hard pressed to argue it wasn’t the right one.
Stuck in a three-way battle for the starting quarterback job at U.Va. throughout the 2011 season, the former Sherando High School signal caller appeared in just two games and grew frustrated with his lack of opportunities to see the field.
Intrigued by a Jaguars program that was in the process of moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) but not yet eligible for the Sun Belt Conference title — thus making it so he would not have out sit out a year after transferring — and a school that would allow him to persue a master’s degree in educational leadership, Metheny finally found a place where he could show off his talents.
Incumbent South Alabama quarterback C.J. Bennett may have edged him for the starting spot in the season opener against the University of Texas-San Antonio, but Metheny saw the field (he attempted two passes) in the loss.
Things only got better from there.
A week later he completed 6 of 10 passes for 58 yards against Nicholls State, he threw his first touchdown pass against North Carolina State and after five games of rotating in and out with Bennett, Jaguars head coach Joey Jones handed the starting role permanently to Metheny.
He responded by leading South Alabama to a thrilling 37-34 win Homecoming win over Florida Atlantic in overtime in which he threw for 179 yards and a touchdown and ran for 51 yards and another score.
The Jaguars may not have had the year they were hoping for (finishing 2-11 overall and 1-7 in conference play) but Metheny showed what he could do when given the chance.
He finished 189 for 345 (54.8 percent) for 2,148 yards and 12 touchdowns and rushed for 354 yards and a score while playing in all 13 games.
8. Winchester Royals reach Valley League finals
Even though Winchester came up two wins shy of its ultimate goal of winning its 14th Valley Baseball League championship, the Royals’ dominated the North Division.
The Royals won the Valley Baseball League’s North Division by 10 games and swept the first two playoff series to reach the Jim Lineweaver Cup championship series for the first time since 2004.
The Royals entered the Jim Lineweaver Cup series on an eight-game winning streak and rolled to a 13-1 victory over Harrisonburg in Game 1. From there, however, it was all Harrisonburg as the Turks won the next three games to win the series 3-1 and clinch their 12th title and first since 2000.
Winchester manager Steve Sabins guided the Royals to a 36-16 record in his first season with the team. The Royals clinched the North Division early with a 10-7 win over Front Royal on July 15.
Lamar’s Brad Picha led the Royals with a .370 batting average (67 for 181) with 12 homers and 36 RBIs. Delaware’s Jimmy Yezzo led Winchester in hits (79) and RBIs (62), and Alabama State’s Leo Rojas led the Royals in runs (59) and stolen bases (11). Southern Arkansas pitchers James Baune and Janson Carr led the way with a team-high six victories apiece, and Carr led the team with 69 strikeouts in 60 innings.
Sabins announced in October that he would not return for his second season with the Royals because he’s taking over as general manager of the Charles Town (W.Va.) Cannons. The VBL approved the move of the Luray Wranglers to Charles Town at its monthly meeting on Sept. 20.
Winchester hired Kyle Phelps, a 25-year-old assistant coach at Oklahoma Wesleyan, as the Royals 19th manager on Oct. 5. Phelps, a native of Tampa, Fla., graduated from Lyon College (Ark.) in 2010.
Phelps spent the past two summers coaching in wooden bat leagues. In 2011 he was a coach with the summer league Chillicothe (Mo.) Mudcats and last year he managed the Woodlands Strykers in their inaugural season in the Texas Collegiate League.
“He’s got considerable experience in summer baseball, and he’s developed a large network of coaches that he knows,” said Winchester Royals president Todd Thompson. “We think that’s going to help him.”
9. James Wood volleyball advances to state tournament
The Colonels definitely made it a season to remember by earning their first Group AA state tournament berth since 2002.
James Wood finished with a 22-5 overall record (the third-highest win total in school history), going 7-1 in the Northwestern District.
The Colonels only blemish in district play came in a 3-1 loss to Handley in the final regular season match. The Judges’ win forced a tiebreaker for the regular season title, and the Colonels bounced back to defeat Handley 3-1 to clinch the regular season title and the automatic berth to the Region II tournament.
James Wood sophomore outside hitter Katie Houser earned Northwestern District Player of the Year honors, leading the area with 451 kills and a team-best 220 digs and 84 aces.
At regionals, the Colonels defeated Powhatan 3-2 in the quarterfinals and then rallied to beat Potomac Falls 3-2 in the semifinals to clinch their first state tournament berth in a decade.
James Wood coach Jill Couturiaux said the five-set victory over Potomac Falls stood out as the most memorable moment.
“That win guaranteed us a trip to states and it was an incredibly fulfilling moment for me as a coach,” said Couturiaux, The Winchester Star’s Volleyball Coach of the Year. “The student section rushed the court and I realized that wasn’t just a moment of celebration for my team, it was a moment of celebration for our school. I feel like that moment is one I’ll never forget ... it’s a moment every coach should have the opportunity to experience.”
James Wood lost to eventual Group AA state champion Loudoun County in the Region II championship, and then lost to Region I champion Jamestown in the state quarterfinals.
Colonels senior libero Kelby Jackson, a two-time All-Northwestern District selection and first team All-Region II pick this year, gave a verbal commitment to play for Division I Radford in November.
10. Handley’s Smith and Grove make Olympic trials
Former Handley and University of Virginia star Ayla Smith (track and field, class of 2006) and former Handley and current U.S. Naval Academy standout Ben Grove (swimming, class of 2010) are two of the most decorated athletes in area history for their respective sports.
This year, they showed they were two of the country’s finest athletes as well by qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Trials.
In June, Smith advanced to the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials at the University of Oregon. Needing to place fourth in her heat of eight to make the finals, she placed sixth with a time of 56.70 seconds. Smith’s time was 12th best among the 16 semifinal qualifiers. Smith advanced to the semifinals by taking third in her preliminary heat with a time of 57.01 seconds.
At Handley, Smith won Group AA state titles in the 300 hurdles and 110 hurdles her senior year, and her state-record time of 43.43 in the 300 hurdles still stands. At Virginia, Smith earned All-American status when her distance medley relay team placed third at the NCAA indoor championship meet in 2011, and she holds school records for the 60, 100 and 400 hurdles.
While a sophomore at Navy, Grove swam a time of 1:04.22 to win the long course 100-meter breaststroke at the ECAC Championship meet in February, which also bested the time of 1:04.69 he needed to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials held in June at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb. Grove swam a time of 1:04.80, good enough for a tie for 91st place in a field of 141 swimmers for the event.
Grove remains the only area boy or girl to win a VHSL state high school swimming title. Grove recorded a Group AA/A state-record time of 57.77 in the 100-yard breaststroke as a junior, then set the only state record of the meet as a senior in winning the event again, this time in 57.43.