By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Capital upset Greenbrier East one step from Charleston, many felt the Class AAA state tournament became a wide-open affair without the defending state champions.
Princeton head coach Debbie Ball didn’t think it took the exclusion of the Spartans to make it anyone’s title to take.
“I felt even if they had been in the tournament it still would have been wide open,” Ball said. “You can’t really tell what Greenbrier East had even though they beat us as to who they have played this year.
“I have always thought ... if Greenbrier East had been in our conference day in and day out playing, they wouldn’t have been undefeated.”
Princeton is one of eight teams vying for the Class AAA title, with the fourth-seeded Tigerettes (19-5) playing fifth seed Logan (15-9) in the quarterfinals today at Charleston Civic Center. The opening tip is slated for 11:15 a.m.
It will be Princeton’s first state tourney appearance since 2009.
“These kids have been working hard in the offseason and it takes that,” Ball said. “They have to work as hard in the offseason as they do in the season so it has taken them this long to develop to where you can compete like they need to to be upstate.”
Princeton is 0-4 in four previous tourney visits, but Ball thinks the Tigerettes have what it takes to move on, which would include a semifinal game on Friday against top seed Spring Valley or Capital.
“You can’t just be happy being there and I am not saying that the groups in the past did that, but this group is different, they are not the same,” Ball said. “They are not just happy to be here, this is part of a goal that they wanted to accomplish and they are not going to be happy until they finish it on Saturday.”
Leading the Tigerettes are eight seniors, paced by future Marshall performer McKenzie Akers, the Mountain State Athletic Conference Player of the Year, who has provided 25.2 points, 5.1 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 3.0 steals. She has also scored a school record 1,779 points...and counting.
“McKenzie is an all-around great player and teammate and it is pretty much a privilege to say I am playing with her,” Princeton classmate Marissa Mullins said. “In the years down the road I can look back and say I played with McKenzie so it is an honor.”
“Ball added, “McKenzie puts a comfort into the other four that are on the floor. She is just a go-getter, she is a winner is what she is, she has added quite a bit to this program.”
It’s not just Akers. Mullins is the smallest player on a small team, but she contributes 11.3 points and 4.6 rebounds a game, while Hannah Preservati had ACL surgery in the offseason and has refused to let it slow her down, averaging 6.6 points and 4.4 boards.
Up next for that trio will be Logan, which defeated St. Albans 57-46 in the co-regionals to advance to Charleston. Princeton reached this point by avenging an earlier loss to George Washington 61-56.
“Those three are going to have to be hitting (their shots),” Ball said. “We rely on everybody that we put on the floor in one way or the other, some shooting, some defense. Hopefully if they just get out there and play hard and we are hitting and playing our game I think that we will give Logan a shot at a good game.
“I know they have got a lot of young players and they have a lot of depth and they have a big future actually.”
As is usually the case, the Tigerettes will be at a disadvantage in terms of size, with 6-foot-0 Rachel Surface (3.0 ppg, 6.4 reb) and 5-7 leaper Khadija Payne (7.2 ppg, 9.0 reb) having to compete with Logan’s 6-2 freshman Monica Mitchell.
“Rachel knows her role, she is out there to get rebounds and play defense and Khadija is actually our big player that is more versatile and can jump and can get up and down the floor,” said Ball, whose Tigers defeated George Washington after losing in the sectionals to Greenbrier East.
“We are going to have to double up on their big girl down low definitely because she is one of their main scorers,” added Preservati. “Their guards are also very talented so we can’t forget about them also.”
Logan has lost two of its last four games, but those defeats came by 13 points to Class AA top seed Westside and by 1 to Spring Valley in the sectional finals. The Wildcats are led by Mitchell, Shayna Gore, who is ‘all-around good player’ and a collection of talented shooters that will have to be defended by the Tigers.
“They have really good ballhandlers, they pass well, they have good shooters, they have a real good post player, it is really going to be a tough game,” Ball said. “I think we match up pretty good with them, but we are just going to have to dig in on defense, our defense is going to have to step up in this game.”
There is also the usual issue with lack of size, but the Tigerettes have overcome that deficiency all season long.
“I am like, ‘Here we go again’, but we have been battling that,” said Ball, who is in her 30th season as the head coach at Princeton. “Some teams even have two big posts, but these kids never give up and they know they have to have help out with big people and they have to move a little quicker.
“Hopefully we will be hitting a little bit better and that will make a big difference to them too.”
Ball thinks these Tigerettes have what it takes to make a run, and possibly even bring home the biggest prize of all.
“I think they do, our practices aren’t easy and I know I just wear them down to nothing,” Ball said. “I almost did that (Tuesday) thinking I had better not do this, but I think they have momentum and they know that this has been their goal all year and I think it will carry them through...
“This team has always had that heart, they never give up, even last year’s group. They have just matured a little bit more, played a little bit more in the offseason and gotten a little bit better.”
—Contact Brian Woodson