Cougars embracing role as underdogs
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Cinderella's slipper fits Capital just fine.
The Cougars struggled to post a winning record this season, but a new season begins after they pulled off the biggest upset of the year in advancing to the state tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
Capital's postseason path took an unexpected turn Thursday when it defeated host No. 1, undefeated and defending state champion Greenbrier East 54-45 in the Class AAA Region 3 co-final.
The Cougars earned the eighth seed and will play No. 1 Spring Valley at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday in the state quarterfinals at the Charleston Civic Center.
Capital hasn't been back to states since Alexis Hornbuckle and Renee Montgomery led the school to the last of its back-to-back championships in 2002. Capital made it to several regionals in the subsequent years, but could never make it back. The Cougars have fallen on hard times since, posting their first winning record last year in quite some time. In the two years prior to that, they owned a 9-34 combined mark.
"If you told me my senior year I was going to be playing in the state tournament at the Civic Center, I would have told you, you were crazy,'' said Capital senior forward Katie Crowder. "It's going to be a great experience and a great way to end your high school career."
The Cougars (10-13) are the only school representing the Kanawha Valley in any of the three classes at the Charleston Civic Center this week, and is also the only team among the remaining 23 with a losing record.
"People have doubted us and we have come together,'' said senior forward Briana Harris. "I think that was a big part with our win [over Greenbrier East]. I think we pulled together because we're the underdogs.
"Our coaches encouraged us, telling us we can do this. We didn't believe in ourselves that we could, and having all those fans booing just built our confidence that we could win. The seniors, we have never been on the Civic Center floor and that was one of our big goals.''
Capital's tough Mountain State Athletic Conference schedule, which also included a regular-season matchup with Greenbrier East, challenged them night-in and night-out, but also steeled them for this moment.
The Cougars didn't start showing flashes until the last few weeks of the regular season. Late last month, Capital lost at No. 7 Princeton by 12 points (60-38), by 11 points to Greenbrier East and took No. 9 George Washington into overtime before falling by five points (68-63). Then in the sectional, the Cougars edged South Charleston 49-48 in the semifinals to avenge a loss a few days earlier, but stumbled against GW in the title game, losing 61-35.
"To be honest with you, we're disappointed with our overall record," said Capital coach B.J. Calabrese. "We look at five or six games that we felt we had legitimate chances to win.
"A couple of close ones that we let get away from us, but we've proven at times we can play with really good teams and that's what it's going to take when you get to the tournament, because everybody in there has a good quality team and program."
Calabrese said the players have earned this moment in the spotlight.
"With the strides we made last year, winning 14 games, we felt going into this year if we could keep everybody together and keep working, we had the potential to do this,'' he said. "We kept telling the kids that. I'm not sure a year ago the kids really believed us.
"I'm not sure early in the season that this group would have believed it. It's a reflection of the fact over the summer they worked a lot harder. We've gotten into some shootouts where we've played quality teams. We tried to scrimmage teams that were good, quality teams, and we played in a fall league. Once you have a little bit of success, it really builds your confidence and kids start to believe they really can do it.''
Crowder said everyone has contributed this year.
Senior guard Kahdijah Lee, who sat out two games early in the year for disciplinary reasons, averages a team-high 13.0 points while senior guard Keke Walker adds 10.9 and sophomore 6-foot post Dashia Foster, a transfer from Class A four-time defending state champion Huntington St. Joseph, contributes 8.0.
Outside of those three, though, only three other players have hit for double figures in games - Harris (twice), sophomore guard-forward India Hairston (once) and senior guard Tatiyana Wood (three times).
"We have a lot of different role players,'' said Crowder. "We don't have an all-star and I think that's the thing that makes us so special.
"I think our record reflects us trying to figure out who we are, who works best where and I think we've finally found the right mix, when to play people. Throughout the season, just like everybody else, we've had our ups and downs. I think we've picked just the right time. We know we are in the right place and we should be winning.''
Harris said the Cougars have an atmosphere of caring that surrounds the squad.
"We're more like a family,'' said the three-year starter. "Everybody gets along with each other and encourages each other. We all encourage each other to work on stuff we're not really as good at.''
Walker said nobody wants the season to end.
"We want to keep going,'' she said. "Just keep playing basketball as long as we can. We love basketball. A couple of us have played together for a long time and went to the same middle school and a couple competed against each other.
"A lot of team work, passing the ball to the right people, making sure the post players are getting right down there. It's our senior year and we're trying to make it farther. I'm going to enjoy it, have fun and play basketball.''
Calabrese said he has been noticing that passion from his players.
"We don't necessarily have the tallest players or the greatest leapers in the world,'' said the Capital coach, "but we hustle after loose balls. [Thursday] night [at Greenbrier East] there were probably eight occasions where we're on the floor for loose balls.''
Calabrese said he is also seeing a laser-like focus.
"You could tell in the locker room and the last couple of days of practice they were prepared,'' he said of the upset of East. "They don't want the season to end.
"The game against South Charleston in the second round of the sectional, you could tell we just didn't want to lose that game. They're playing hard. We've had our difficulties over the last several years. They've all stepped in and accepted their roles. That was really nice this year."
Crowder said she cherishes how things have worked out.
She said when she and Harris came out for the team as freshmen, only four girls showed up and no one was sure if there would be a team. And last year was their first with a winning record.
"This team has really come together,'' said Crowder, a three-year starter on the basketball team and four-year starter on the soccer team who is making her first trip to states in either sport. "I'd just like to thank the coaches for all the faith they've had in us. Just the encouraging words they've had. I can't really explain it. It's a great group of girls. It's really magical to be at this point.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.