Bishop Ireton girls win first state hoops title

Bishop Ireton girls win first state hoops title
The Bishop Ireton girls’ basketball team that won the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association championship on March 2. (Photo/Robin Catalano)

By Ryan Hopper

Bishop Ireton girls’ basketball team won its first state championship in school history, prevailing 56-52 over rival St. Paul VI at Benedictine College Prep in Richmond on March 2 in the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association championship.

While the Ireton Cardinals also compete in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, in Virginia, private schools play in the VISAA for state playoffs. Traditionally, the Paul VI Panthers have dominated both the boys’ and girls’ VISAA Division I brackets, and the Paul VI girls went into the championship game seeking an astonishing 17th consecutive state title.

Ireton, looking to avenge its loss at Paul VI in February, and the Panthers seemed to be on a collision course for the championship game. The former won its VISAA playoff games by an average of 31.5 points, and the latter did so by an average of 26 points.

Cardinals Coach Kesha Walton wanted to communicate a consistent message to her team: if they could play their best game, they could beat anybody.

“The nights we didn’t play well, we ended up losing,” Walton, who was named WCAC Coach of the Year, said. “We did not even mention their 16- year streak. Our main focus was to make sure we play well and to make sure we play well these next three games and to go through. … We just talked about us playing well, being in the moment, relaxing and having fun.”

The game was tight, and the Panthers led by one at halftime, but junior Ireton wing Nyla Brooks would go on a 6-0 solo run midway through the fourth quarter to give the Cardinals a lead they would not relinquish. Brooks, a University of Tennessee commit, had a game-high 17 points, while junior guard Amirah Anderson and senior guard Saniyah King scored 14 apiece to propel the Cardinals to the historic state championship.

Walton’s team had to overcome significant setbacks, including injury and a mid-season losing streak, en route to the title. The team lost two of its five starters, senior Tanah Gorman and junior Kayla Washington, to season-ending ACL tears before a single preseason practice was held.

“Obviously, the success was very good for us because we weren’t expecting to be down two starters,” Walton said. “We build our [out-of-conference] schedule around this time, so I’m building off what my team looks like, not taking into consideration all these AAU games they are playing in, and then two of them get hurt.”

Locked into its schedule featuring eight out-of-conference tournaments against tough competition from all over the country, Ireton had to persevere all season, something Walton believes helped the battle-tested Cardinals win the state championship.

“We’ve played probably 10 of the top teams in the country like Monteverde, Sidwell and obviously St. John’s,” Walton said. “We went out to San Diego, California, this December, we went to New York. So my main thing was ‘play the best to be the best,’ and in each one of those games, we showed up, and it could have went either way. … We played Westtown, who is nationally ranked in the top 10. We went down and came all the way back and lost at the buzzer. … I think a lot of those tough games at the beginning of the season helped prepare us for our state championship.”

After its close loss to Westtown on Dec. 2, 2023, Ireton went on a run of nine straight victories before losing to La Jolla Country Day School by 13 in the final of the San Diego Surf N’ Slam on Dec. 30, 2023. This loss would begin the only rough stretch of the Cardinals’ season, as Ireton lost five of six games as WCAC play began in the new year.

Ireton would drop its opening conference game 69-66 at Good Counsel before returning home to rout rival Bishop O’Connell 69-29. The Cardinals’ three straight losses would come against conference foe Bishop McNamara, ranked No. 6 nationally by maxpreps. com; Monteverde Academy, ranked No. 9 nationally by; and Desert Vista High School, which narrowly beat Ireton by two points and would go on to be state runners-up in Arizona.

Ireton responded to this losing streak in resounding fashion, dropping only two games of the remaining 12 in the regular season. The first was to nationally ranked Sidwell Friends by 25, the Cardinals’ only lopsided loss of the season, and the second was to Paul VI 60-52 on the road on February 12.

During this stretch, Ireton avenged losses to Good Counsel and McNamara, blowing out the former by 32 and beating the latter by six at home, and beat nationally ranked St. John’s 69-57 on the road. McNamara’s loss to Ireton was its first and only conference loss of the regular season and the Mustangs were later crowned as Maryland state champions. The Cardinals ended the regular season 20-8 with an impressive 13-3 WCAC record, which Walton says is another school record for Ireton.

Entering the WCAC playoffs as the second seed, the Cardinals continued their momentum with a victory over Elizabeth Seton in the quarterfinals, but Ireton’s run ended in the semifinals when it fell to St. John’s 49-42 in a back-and-forth contest. While Ireton bested the Cadets by 12 in its January 26 visit to Northwest D.C., St. John’s would recover, winning its final 10 games of the season, culminating in its third-straight WCAC championship.

“They were pretty disappointed with the outcome of the St. John’s game, being that [it] was pretty close,” Walton said. “It was just a bad night for us, not to take anything away from St. John’s. … After that game, they were pretty heartbroken because we knew that we could play a lot better than we did, and I think for my kids, it was their first time being in that moment.”

Walton gave the team the following Monday off, but told them to be ready to get into the gym Tuesday to “practice hard to play harder,” one of the team’s mottoes.

“I told them that in life, sometimes you get a second opportunity, and we got this opportunity for the state championship,” Walton said. “So I need you guys to lock in for these next two practices, and let’s get ready to take care of business. They were pretty receptive to that, and they really wanted it.”

With six seniors graduating and moving onto the next level at places like Howard University, Bucknell University and the Air Force Academy, Walton won’t compromise on the high standards she has upheld in all her coaching positions.

“The outlook for next year is a repeat,” Walton said. “Not just a repeat for state, but a first-time WCAC championship as well.”