By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Three young women from West Virginia will get to take the floor at the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown this Friday night — wearing the maroon and gray of Concord University in an exhibition game against the Mountaineers.
“For kids like Leslie Mack, Ashley Brown, Hannah Murray, the West Virginia kids, it’s a great experience and a big thrill to play in the Coliseum,” said Concord head coach Kenny Osborne. “They’re all looking forward to that.”
The 7 p.m. exhibition stems from the friendship between Osborne and WVU coach Mike Carey.
Osborne said, “I’ve known him for a long time. He knows how it (the financial part of the playing contract) helps our budget. ... He said we’ll probably do it two out of every three years. It’s a good relationship with them.”
Osborne said that Carey once visited Athens and gave him some WVU shirts. “I joked with him that I’m going to wear the WVU shirt when we play them because I’m a big WVU fan,” he said.
Over the years, he said, “We’ve stayed in contact. We’ll be on the road and stop and see each other’s games. We’ll shoot each other texts when they have a big win, or we have a big win.”
The “biggest thing” about the exhibition game for his players, Osborne said, “You get to play at the highest level. You’re playing a team that’s probably going to be in the preseason top 20 in the country.
“It’s a senior-dominated (team), probably top four or five in the Big 12, which some people say is the best Division I conference in women’s basketball.”
Concord and WVU last played in a November 2007 exhibition, when current CU assistant coach Jamie Cluesman was a point guard for Osborne’s team. The teams were supposed to play an encore last fall but it was canceled by last October’s freak snowstorm.
While Concord’s team includes three West Virginians, there are no Mountain State residents on this year’s WVU roster posted on the university’s athletics website.
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Osborne said last week, “Right now, we’re progressing pretty well. We’ve a lot of new faces, but the older kids have done a nice job so far of showing good leadership.”
Last season the Lady Lions battled key injuries, notably to forward Andrea Bertrand and guard Ashley Brown, and finished 7-22.
“I want to forget about last year,” Osborne said impatiently. “It’s a whole different team, a whole different attitude.”
“We had to make several roster adjustments and changes after last year, for various reasons. I think what we’ve done is a positive step toward getting us back to where we’re used to being.”
The coach is looking to 5-foot-11 center Sammi Webster for senior leadership. “I’ve told her, you need to be one of our leaders, not only on the floor but off the floor,” said Osborne, taking note of her academic achievement on the “athletic director’s honor roll.”
“She was part of those teams that won 23 and 17 (games) and two final fours, and has backed up Jolysa Brown, so she’s been through the wars and she needs to express to the young kids what it takes to get to that level,” Osborne said.
Brown and Bertrand are in their fourth year of college, but because of time lost due to their injuries, both are juniors in terms of eligibility.
Bertrand is “fully recovered right now, knock on wood,” Osborne said. “When you lose an all-conference player in Andrea Bertrand, it’s tough to overcome. ... But to have her back, it just means so much to our whole team.”
“She can score, and also, being a little under-sized in the post, she gives the bigger girls in the post fits. That’s a strong point of her game and we’re trying to do some things to increase her output on the scoring end.”
Brown’s role is also to provide leadership, Osborne said. “She always has practiced hard. Two years ago when we won 23, she was a big reason why we had the success we did. She didn’t play a whole lot, but she practiced hard every day.
“She gives us that type of energy in practice, and hopefully it carries over into games with all the other players, and herself.”
In high school, she won four state basketball championships as a guard for Summers County.
Stephanie “Sissy” Wagner returns with the distinction of leading NCAA Division II last season with the top assist-to-turnover ratio, 2.81. Osborne said, “I think that was the only time in Concord history that we had a player lead an individual stat category.”
Her 5.6 assists per game was seventh nationally. She also averaged 10.1 points per game.
Leslie Mack, another Summers County High graduate with four state prep championships, returns after being hampered last year in her freshman season by an injury. Despite that adversity, she scored more than 10 points in seven of the 26 games in which she played.
“She’s one of our sharpshooters,” Osborne said.
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This year’s recruiting class arrived in Athens after the coaching staff “saw we were going to have issues, so we ran the roads, on the phones, everything else we could do,” Osborne said.
A transfer who averaged 11.4 points last year at Columbus (Ohio) State Community College, Melea Smith, is “going to lead the newcomers, there’s no doubt about that,” Osborne said.
“Hannah Murray, a 6-2 kid from Ravenswood, has got unlimited potential. She runs the floor very well, she’s got perimeter skills, she’s got post skills.”
Osborne said Lexi Lowery “can play the 2, she can play the 1, she’s athletic and can create her own shot.”
Two freshmen from Richmond, Va., could provide help on the outside and inside.
Olivia Morgan “gives us eventually a backup at point,” Osborne said. “She sees the floor very well. She’s an excellent athlete.” The coach calls Alley Odell “a big strong kid. I look to use her to rebound, make layups and screen.”
Sarah Wedder was slowed in preseason practices by a foot injury, but Osborne said, “She’s got very good post skills, and she can also face up by scoring, so I look for her to help us immediately in the post.”
Grundy High graduate Loni Webb will probably take this season as a redshirt year, though Osborne said, “She’s a very good shooter.”
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Concord’s regular season starts on Nov. 13 in Harrogate, Tenn., playing Lincoln Memorial University.
This will be the Lady Lions’ first season in the new Mountain East Conference, which will require some getting used to.
Osborne said, “Eight of our 11 opponents are (former) West Virginia Conference members, so we’ll be very familiar with them.”
“As far as the new ones go, we played UVa-Wise last year and they beat us in a close game. We played Notre Dame (College) two years ago ... .”
“Urbana, we don’t know much about them at all. I just know they won the G-MAC (Great Midwest Athletic Conference) championship last year, so I know they’re going to be very good.”
“I’m looking forward (to the season), but it’s going to be a very challenging, very difficult schedule.”
One familiar, close-to-home opponent is still on the schedule. Bluefield State will be in Athens for Concord’s first home contest at 6 p.m. Nov. 19.
“It’ll be odd not playing conference games against Bluefield State,” Osborne said, “but we’re going to still play them. Hopefully we’ll continue to play Bluefield State, because it’s a shame not to play a school that’s 20-25 minutes away.”
— Contact Tom Bone at