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ALBRIGHT: St. Marys girls’ hunger and depth puts them in a good place

When we last saw the St. Marys’ girls basketball team, it was an energetic and fulfilling experience.

Take your pick of adjectives.

Whichever you choose, the Blue Devils’ delightful run to the state tournament in Charleston highlighted an overall strength that helped the program all season: A quite large veteran presence.

Even as the stakes raised higher and higher, St. Marys’ older group powered through to heights not seen in Pleasants County for the past four years, fueling its run to the state capital. It led to a date with St. Joe in a state quarterfinal, and a peeking down the road – setting up an intriguing 2021.

Frankly, the overall energy that the Blue Devil group was bringing to the equation, was starting to remind people of the old St. Marys teams. All they needed to do was sprinkle in as much state tournament experience as they could.

When COVID-19 hit, that opportunity went out the door.

And while it may have been a nice reward for Howie Meeks’ group, getting to play on the big floor, it also was clear that not being able to compete wasn’t going to be the end of the world. They had enough of a work ethic as a group. That’s one of the biggest things that stood out.

Enter the deepest and hungriest team the school has seen in a long time.

The group returns many of the most important pieces for any Little Kanwaha Conference team.

Its first advantage? The ability to make sure the energy radiating from the program at the end of last year stands as a pillar of the next 20 to 23 games.

Understanding the goal is good. Chasing it together is even better.

Meeks already staked his claim, saying the aggression his girls showed down the stretch last year, “is something they could build on for the future.”

It’s an encouraging statement for a group who was searching for an identity.

When the Blue Devils fell behind by 34 points to Calhoun County and struggled early last year, it signaled a need to find what this group was all about.

The hunger provides that.

Still, ensuring improvement isn’t just about everyone being on the same page. It requires a willingness to get better from all players throughout the team. It’s arguably one of the most critical challenges facing any team.

But, that’s where the depth comes in.

Although Meeks can play only five girls at a time, no one says it has to be the same quintet every single night. Anywhere from 9 to 11 players can take the court in whatever substitution pattern there may be.

Just ask Parkersburg Catholic head coach Marty Vierheller, who has watched this Blue Devil team grow the last three years.

“Because the kids have played together more, as a coach you can design plays and put people in places to be successful,” he said. “The longer they are on the floor together the better they become. And the main reason is because they learn each other no matter what your offense or defense is.”

About that defense, where the depth and hunger so far have been separated, that isn’t the case when it comes to the point-stopping unit.

When combining both of those qualities on the end of the floor without the ball, opposing teams are looking at nothing but a bunch of headaches night in and night out.

It is another aspect Meeks staked his claim to last season after the regional win over Cameron. “The way we are starting to play defense is the way we used to play defense here at St. Marys,” he said.

And the way they used to play defense was about as good as anyone in the state. So, that’s nothing to scoff at. His groups played for three straight state championships – all of which came against St. Joe and two of those were the closest anyone got to beating the Irish during their run to seven straight titles – before Gilmer County finally ended the streak.

Now that isn’t to say this team is going to steamroll people, but if they do then things could get scary in a hurry. One look at their schedule should frighten anyone. With games against Ritchie County, Parkersburg Catholic, Wheeling Central, Magnolia and Gilmer County, even if they emerge from those with a .750 record, it means the defense did its job well.

Perhaps the most scary thought of all of this though is what one can call the Meeks effect.

Just listen to Williamstown head coach Fred Sauro tell you about it.

“When he has had a group for a while they usually get better,” Sauro said.

And his words should 100 percent be taken at face value. He’s taken his fair share of setbacks from veteran St. Marys squads, and likely has prepared harder for many Blue Devils’ teams than any coach. So, there is a familiarity there even without him spending every waking minute with them in the gym.

Many may have noticed he used the word “usually” but he later clarified his thoughts.

“I think they have a solid team,” he said.

And so, the Blue Devils will lean on their depth and hunger to shine up the starting sparkles of an overall solid effort from the end of last season. And by welcoming back the pieces they do, they have everything they need to achieve it.

Contact Joe Albright at jalbright@newsandsentinel.com.

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