By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
Last year, the Bishop Ireton girls basketball team had few expectations, but finished with 15 wins — the most for the program since the school became co-ed in 1990 — and rolled to the semifinals of the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association tournament. After those achievements, the question this year is whether the Cardinals can repeat the feat or do even better. The roster has much more height and physical presence than last year’s squad, which was dominated by guards.
Things got off to a strong start with an 89-20 mauling of Middleburg Academy Tuesday night, and with a tough slate of games to come, Ireton welcomes its elevated standing.
“I think it presents more of a challenge for us,” said Cardinals head coach Jason Harris. “We’re excited because the program is heading in the right direction with some of the new incoming people that we have. But then also some of the kids that have been here have gotten so much better, which makes me even more excited and proud that we’re not just getting all new people but we’re getting people who have been here getting better also.”
It was one of those new players who led the way for the hosts, as freshman center Akunna Konkwo scored 16 points and grabbed 8 rebounds against a Dragons team that struggled to cope with her height and strength. Also reaching double figures was senior guard/forward Michele Montgomery, who scored 12 points, including all of the Cardinals’ first 8 points. The height is the most noticeable difference from last year, as Konkwo is one of four players
over 6 feet tall.
“The No. 1 thing is we have post players this year, two 6-foot-3 players, so that helps a lot,” Montgomery said after the game. “We were just a guard team last year and [height] really helps with post [play].”
“We’re definitely 100 percent taller than we were last year, so it helps to have a little bit of height,” Harris said. “Last year, we shot a lot of three-pointers and had to play a more up-tempo style because we didn’t have the height. This year, we have four girls who are six feet and above, so we’re able to play a little bit inside out and get it into the post a little bit, which opens us up a little bit more on the outside.”
While the Cardinals managed to run up an enormous margin of victory, the game was a useful exercise, as players were able to rotate in and out of the game, allowing the team’s coaches to try different line-up compositions. Having only practiced together formally for two weeks, it was a good exercise to see the players together in a game situation.
“We just try to execute the things that we do and try to take the opportunity to practice on the things that we’re not very good at or that we need to get better at,” Harris said. “We don’t pay attention to the score, we don’t want the score to reflect how we play, and we just want to execute new things and try to get better as we go along and get some people some playing time that wouldn’t normally play as much.”
The rest of the season promises to be more challenging for the Cardinals, who have a difficult slate of games ahead, including a local clash against Episcopal Wednesday after the Times’ print deadline. With an away game Saturday at Cardinal O’Hara of Springfield, Penn. in the Blue Chip Tip-Off and a trip to Charleston, S.C. over the Christmas break for the Carolina Invitational, there are plenty of enticing encounters to come, including matchups against strong teams from the area.
“We have some new challenges, and then the local teams that we play. Last year we were able to sneak up on a lot of people as nobody really expected us to be any good,” Harris said. “This year, everybody’s going to come in knowing that we’re OK, so it’ll be a little bit different. I expect us to meet a little bit more resistance than we did last year.”
With such a strenuous schedule ahead of them and two games against defending state champions Paul VI, who beat Ireton in the VISAA semifinals last season, the Cardinals are relishing the many tests they will face.
“Other teams are probably going to expect that we’re going to be a little bit better this year, but if we just work hard and come ready to play, we’ll be alright,” Montgomery said.
“I think [strong] teams like that, we’ve got to be able to defend a lot better than what we did last year,” Harris said. “For us, we have to make sure we’re ready to withstand long stretches of them doing really well. It’s not one quarter and the game will be over, it’s four full quarters of playing our best basketball to be able to compete with those schools.”