Winning is nothing new to the Saint Joseph Central girls basketball program.
Having claimed eight Class A state championships since 2009, the Irish have become accustomed to ending their season on a high note as the program enjoys a decade long run of unprecedented success.
While St. Joseph won seven consecutive titles from 2009-2016, the Irish have lost in the championship two of the last three seasons, including last year’s 67-62 setback against Wheeling Central.
Although that defeat remains on the minds of many in the program, it’s safe to say St. Joseph has moved forward and then some in its quest for a ninth championship in 11 years.
Ahead of Thursday’s game at South Charleston, the Irish (9-1) have reeled off four straight victories since suffering their only defeat to date Dec. 22 against Westridge Academy (NC) following a 5-0 start.
In four games this season against in-state competition, St. Joseph’s average margin of victory is 34.5 points, despite the Irish facing the likes of Martinsburg, Morgantown, Wyoming East and Parkersburg.
The Warriors (9-2) and Big Reds (8-1) are considered among the favorites to win their respective classes, yet neither was a match for the Irish, who cruised by Wyoming East 80-53 before handing Parkersburg its firt loss, 73-56.
“The credit goes to those girls. I really like that team and the way they play together,” Parkersburg coach Scott Cozzens said after watching the Big Reds fall to the Irish last Thursday. “Every loose ball they got, every rebound they got and they share the ball well and shoot the lights out. How can you not like that team?”
About the only thing St. Joseph lacks this season is size. In guards Dena Jarrells, Bailee Adkins and Paige Shy, the Irish have a trio of reliable ball-handlers and shooters who are the team’s top three scorers and combine to average nearly 50 points per game.
Factor in center Hannah Roberts, guards Dionna Gray and Laney Whitmore and forwards Abby Lee, Imani ‘Nene’ Hickman and Ava Lee, and the Irish can comfortably go nine deep on a roster that boasts as much talent as any in the state.
“I feel like we’re a little bit more athletic this year with Dionna and Nene coming off the bench,” Irish coach Shannon Lewis said. “It makes us able to get up and pressure a little bit more so we can sub and keep fresh.”
Considering Shy, a Marshall signee, and Jarrells, a UT-Chattanooga signee, are the team’s only seniors, the Irish are set up for success long beyond this season.
Not including Shy and Jarrells, among the team’s top nine scorers only Adkins and Abby Lee are juniors, while three of the remaining five are sophomores and Gray and Hickman are freshmen.
The team’s pressure defense is problematic for any opponent, as St. Joseph can use a variety of full court looks to cause confusion, just as it did last week when the Irish forced the Big Reds into 21 turnovers.
“Their effort was better than ours,” Cozzens said.
St. Joseph’s offensive balance was also on display at PHS, with Shy scoring a team-high 21 points, Adkins pouring in 15, Roberts accounting for 11 and Jarrells and Abby Lee scoring eight apiece. There was production off the bench as well with Gray scoring six points and Hickman adding four.
While the sharp-shooting Shy is extremely efficient from the perimeter and tough to keep out of double figures and Jarrells is a ball-handling wizard with range well beyond the arc,
Adkins is almost looked at as the unsung hero of the roster.
Capable of making a major impact without having to shoot, she managed to pour in 15 points on only eight shots against Parkersburg and also added seven assists and four rebounds.
“She averages seven or eight assists and seven or eight steals a game,” Lewis said of Adkins. “She plays to win and does whatever it takes to win. She knows she has teammates that can score and shoot and knows as long as she hustles, gets her hands on balls and keeps her head up and makes the right decisions, she’ll be a big-time player.
“College coaches have finally seen over the last year that you kind of have to watch her do everything on the floor. Most people are looking for people to score, but she does everything and that’s why college coaches are flocking to her.”
Chances are they’ll also be flocking to some of her younger teammates in the future.