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.

Key losses: Ali Hauck, Emily Magee, Cianna Harrison, Vanessa Cooper, Mallory Taylor.

Top returners: Avery O’Roke, Jr., G; Kennedi Rooks, So., F/G; Hannah Stephanitis, So., G; Jenna McClung, Jr., G; Lauren McClung, So., G; Lauren Bartlett, Jr., G.

Top newcomers: Kayleen Todd, So., F; Abby Jones, Fr., F; Ameerah Evans, Jr., F (transfer from Handley); Kiara Hill, So., G; Valentina Burrill, Fr., F; Audrey Bartlett, Fr., G; Hailey Williams, Fr., G; Kendall Bean, Fr., F.

Green’s outlook: “I think Avery is going to have to become more of a leader for this team. She’s going to have to be more vocal and demand more from the other girls, and hold them accountable just like the seniors who graduated last year held her accountable. She’s done a good job of that [in the offseason] so far. I think Kennedi Rooks will step into that role of where Ali left off. Everybody else [in the post] is in the development stage. For the team as a whole, we’re trying to figure out what’s the strength of everyone, and teaching them to use their strengths and stay away from weaknesses.”

James Wood

Coach: Sanford Silver, first season.

Last year: 22-5 (13-1 Class 4 Northwestern District); district regular-season co-champions; lost to Loudoun Valley in Region 4C semifinals.

Key losses: Makayla Firebaugh, Brenna Prunty, Jenny Kerns, Sue Carter, Brynna Nesselrodt, So., G (injury).

Top returners: Brooklyn Crate, Sr., G; Olivia Miller, Sr., G; Emma Grace Bursey, Jr., G; Kayla Relihan, Jr., F; Sarah Costin, Sr., G; Ellie Nichols, Jr., F.

Top newcomers: Gabby Valentinetti, Jr., G; Caitlyn Shutts, Jr., G; Sammy Stevens, So., F; Aubrey Grove, So., F.

Silver’s outlook: “I’m expecting Brooklyn, Gabby and Emma Grace Bursey to step their playability and game up. I think they’ll do very well and I have very high expectations for them. What I like about Gabby is that she’s able to handle the rock, able to distribute the basketball, and can dribble-drive to the basket and shake off a defender. And she’s a pretty good mid-range jump-shot shooter.”

Sherando

Coach: Brooklyn Wilson, second season.

Last year: 13-11 (8-6 Class 4 Northwestern District); lost to Millbrook in district semifinals.

Key losses: Kelsey Pendzich, Blake Conner, Brooke Williams.

Top returners: Bella Entsminger, Sr., G; Asia James, Sr., G (2.2 assists per game); Lizzie Campbell, Sr., G/F; Haley Mack, Sr., G; Amya Kremer, Sr., G; Hannah Webber, Sr., F; Isabel Hall, Jr., G/F (4.5 rebounds); Ella Carlson, Jr., F; Roxie McVeigh, Jr., G/F; Grace Burke, So., G; Jaiden Polston, So., G/F (7.1 rebounds, 2.5 steals).

Top newcomers: None mentioned.

Wilson’s outlook: “I think one of the biggest things that’s going to be a key for us is just our competitiveness, and our hunger and desire to not only just show up and play, but to win. I think our girls, especially with our younger group getting older, they kind of see now their capabilities, and they believe in themselves and the team. Once we were allowed to start workouts, you could tell that Ella Carlson put a ton of work in over the offseason individually and through travel ball. She’s improved tremendously. She’s not only getting herself better, but she takes a real interest in making her teammates better. Not just the varsity players, but even incoming freshmen, taking time aside in workouts when they get some individual skill time to work with them on post moves and things like that.”

Handley

Coach: Randolph Martin, second season.

Last year: 3-20 (2-12 Class 4 Northwestern District); lost to Millbrook in district quarterfinals.

Key losses: Jadyn Washington, So. G (injury); Ameerah Evans (transferred to Millbrook).

Top returners: Tierney Finley, Sr., F.; Taylor Cannon, Sr., G; Laura Hogan, So., F; Sasha Mathews, Jr., F; Hannah Yerkie, So., F.

Top newcomers: Clyna Randall, Sr., G.

Martin’s outlook: “I think we can be a whole lot better than we were last year. We were taking our lumps, and I expected that. Around the eighth or ninth game, I knew I was coaching [for the 2020-21 season], just because we didn’t have the same experience level of the teams we were playing. I think Laura is probably going to be one of our mainstay scorers. She can get physical, and she’s gotten better since last year.”

Clarke County

Coach: Regina Downing, eighth season.

Last year: 9-15 (5-9 Bull Run District); lost to Page County in district quarters.

Key losses: Raegan Owens, Sara Wenzel, Lauren Gibson, Ellie Brumback, Jr., G (injury).

Top returners: Alison Sipe, Sr., G/F; Willow Oliver, So., G/F; Emma Nelson, So., G.

Top newcomers: None mentioned.

Downing’s outlook: “We will be a young team this year. Our team will be lead by Alison Sipe. Her leadership will be important in helping the younger kids adjust to the varsity level. We will continue down the Clarke Country girls’ tradition of playing hard-nosed man-to-man defense. We will rely on our defense to speed up the game and transition us into our offense. Our offense will be a little faster this year and we should shoot the ball from the perimeter more. Our players have been really working on their shooting and some of them had the opportunity to develop their play while competing in travel and fall league play. I am excited to see these young ladies hit the floor. If we play our best, we should be right there in the mix [in the district]. I think we can be anywhere in the top four.”

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at

rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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