George Washington coach Jamie LaMaster is getting a good vibe.
"They make me feel good whenever I watch them play and work out,'' he said of his players. "They're giving me a lot of faith. It doesn't feel like a new season to us. It doesn't really feel like we've quit. I feel like they picked up from last year.''
The Patriots, who return four starters, advanced to the Class AAA state tournament semifinals the past two seasons and seem more than ready to take the next step. High school girls basketball teams may begin playing games today, but most in the Kanawha Valley open next week.
"They want to continue to keep it going,'' said LaMaster. "They want to get back. I think with the back-to-back state semis finishes, these kids know what it feels like to be a sectional champion and regional champion.
"Hopefully, this is the year. As far as punching through to the state title game, I think we can. It's a goal for us to take that next step. I think there's a lot that comes before that. They're ready to make a run at it.''
GW finished with a 17-10 overall record last season and upset second-seeded South Charleston in the quarterfinals of the state tournament before falling to eventual state champion Greenbrier East.
Patriots senior guard Rachel Ward, junior post player Kelli Jo Harrison, sophomore point guard Alanna Mobayed, senior guard Kayla Stewart and sophomore guard Hailey Stewart return to their starting positions. Ward averaged 12.8 points and Harrison tossed in 12.1. GW seniors Eva Roberts and Leslie Gilmore will add depth off the bench, as will sophomores Lilly Ash and Maria Romeo.
"We have the experience,'' LaMaster said. "We feel good about several positions, but we're looking for several other kids to fill spots and add some depth. I feel like overall, we're more athletic. We may be a little smaller, but we're a whole lot faster.''
John Testa takes over at South Charleston, which graduated all five starters from last year's squad that finished 21-4. The Black Eagles were state runners-up the previous two seasons.
"There's always talent at South Charleston,'' said Testa, a former women's assistant coach at the University of Charleston. "They practiced against those seniors last year, so I'm really expecting some good things. We're ready to go.''
Seniors Alliyah Webb and Laci Jarrell will be looked upon for guidance, while sophomores Lina Villanueva and Aryaunna Mosley are the only two who logged significant minutes last season.
Meredith Lauerman, a 6-2 senior who hasn't played the last two years, juniors Frankie Bland and Kirstie Travert and sophomore Alexia Wade, who was on last year's team, will fill starting spots.
Paul Sutherland returns to the court for the first time since the 2007-08 season at Charleston Catholic, which went 13-11 and lost in last year's Class A quarterfinals. Sutherland compiled a 159-43 record in eight seasons at Winfield, guiding the Generals to two Class AA state titles.
The Fighting Irish start the season in a hole with Catherine Bandak, a 6-foot center who was the team's second-leading scorer last year as a freshman, and incoming freshman Peri Bailey both out for the season with knee injuries. Sutherland will lean heavily on seniors Samantha Fletcher and Simone Assaley, who hasn't played since her freshman season, and juniors Anna Whelan and Hannah Gallian.