The South Lakes girls basketball team won’t blow you away with blazing speed or raw athleticism. They won’t make your head spin with dazzling skill or grind you into a pulp in the form of a wild blowout.
But they will probably beat you.
Such is the nature of the Liberty District’s first-place team, one that continues to pile up wins even if it doesn’t always set the world on fire with picture-perfect performances. Heading into Friday’s game against Jefferson, the Seahawks (15-2, 8-1 Liberty) have racked up 14 wins in their past 15 outings, and they don’t have any plans of slowing down during the regular season’s final two-week stretch.
“We have a great team this year,” said junior guard Caitlin Jensen, second on the team with 10.6 points per game. “I think going past districts we can go past regionals. I think we’re looking at states this year if we keep pushing and pushing.”
A state tournament berth would be a monumental achievement for a team that hasn’t even won a district title in the eight years since Christy Winters Scott took over the coaching reins at her alma mater. Scott, a former All-ACC selection during her days playing at Maryland, was a key member of the previous South Lakes girls team that won a state title back in 1986. Now she’s trying to restore that luster to a program that has in recent years played second fiddle to Madison, which has claimed four of the past five Liberty District championships.
To overcome that hurdle, the Seahawks must continue to display the kind of resilience they have shown in their current four-game winning streak, which has featured wins against district contenders Madison, McLean and Langley. In their most recent outing, a Tuesday night road contest against Langley (8-9, 4-5 Liberty), Scott’s team followed its occasional habit of not playing their best basketball but still finding a way to grind out the victory. They trailed the Saxons for much of the game and committed nine more turnovers than their opponent, but a 12-2 run during the first six minutes of the fourth quarter paved the way for a 51-43 win.
Scott credits that perseverance to the maturation process that has seen her squad’s core group of juniors gain valuable experience in overcoming adversity. Five of the team’s seven juniors — Jensen, Abigail Rendle, Sasha Sprei, Natalie Toma and Colette Toma have played on the varsity team since their freshman year.
“I think it’s just that the competitive maturity is showing up now,” Scott said. “I think if this game and this same situation had happened three years ago, I don’t know if they would have had the mental toughness to push through. Not to say that they wouldn’t get it eventually, but I just think that because they’ve been through battles like that freshman and sophomore year, I think that they’ve been seasoned in terms of being competitive and knowing how to be disciplined coming down the stretch.”
Chief among those juniors are Jensen and Rendle, whose command of the backcourt and frontcourt have lent balance to the team on both ends of the floor. Jensen, a 5-foot-6 guard, provides Scott with a confident ball-handler who’s not afraid to stroke it from the outside. Rendle, the team’s 6-4 center who averages 10.9 points per game, offers an imposing interior presence who knows how to finish around the rim. She can also make life miserable for opponents on the other end, something that showed in her seven blocks against Langley on Tuesday night.
Both players were voted onto the All-Tournament Team of this past month’s 40th annual IAABO Invitational, which South Lakes won after handing perennial region power West Springfield its first loss of the season in the championship game.
“We lost to them by one in the first game we played against them (this season), so coming out and beating them was a big deal for us,” Rendle said.
The improved play of Sasha Sprei has added further depth to the starting five, which thrives mainly at the hands of its 1-2 punch in Sprei and Jensen. Sprei’s ball control allows her to run the point and free up her teammates for open shots on the perimeter.
“Sasha Sprei has been a really big key for us,” Scott said. “She runs the point guard, which allows Caitlin to come off the point guard spot and run the two (guard) and loosen her up a little bit for shooting. She’s been our X-factor for us.”
With five games remaining in the regular season, the Seahawks have the opportunity to lock up a No. 1 seed in the district tournament. Even if they do, though, nothing is guaranteed when that cutthroat competition gets underway.
“The district is tough top to bottom, honestly,” Scott said. “I told the girls after the game tonight, ‘It doesn’t matter who we play. It matters how we play.’ As long as we keep that in mind, whatever happens, happens.”