Finding That Silver Lining

It’s been a journey – that’s for sure – and a long one at that.
For four years, there’ve been twists and turns and valleys. Peaks, too. Thankfully.
 
The funny thing is, though, that over that stretch, as they’ve dealt with the ups and downs that are inherent in athletic competition, reinvented themselves again and again, won some, and lost some, Collegiate’s girls varsity basketball team has remained remarkably even-keeled, focused, and upbeat.
 
No defeat, they know, is fatal. No victory is the be-all, end-all.
 
Yep, the journey has been challenging. It’s prompted reflection and provided lessons. Mainly, it’s been fun. The squad, regardless of personnel, has found a silver lining.
 
“We’ve always looked forward to the next year, knowing that if we worked hard enough, we could get better,” said senior forward Rachel Lifson, who has shared the four-year ride with teammate Greer Buell. “All the practices and hard work have started to pay off.”
 
Some history: The Cougars enjoyed a string of 10 winning seasons, culminating with a three-year stretch beginning in 2012 during which they went 15-6, 17-9, and 17-7.
 
With a very strong nucleus returning in 2015, they had high hopes of taking a quantum leap forward despite the graduation of Ymani Breedlove, an All-State and All-League of Independent Schools forward who went on to play for Guilford College.
 
Then, Anna Wilson, a senior guard par excellence who had already committed to Stanford, transferred to Bellevue (WA) High School. Then, Jordan Marcus – a talented, supremely athletic Princeton lacrosse recruit – suffered a season-ending knee injury.
 
Gone were scorers, rebounders, and leaders.
 
“That really set us back,” said Rives Fleming, the Cougars’ head coach since 1997. “Then we had other injuries and adversity. There was one stretch right before Christmas when we were literally down to six or seven players. You just have to deal with what happens. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. It was a next-person-up mentality. The girls understood that. They did a good job of maintaining positivity.”
 
With a very young, inexperienced squad and a tough schedule, the Cougars finished 7-14 that winter. Over the next two seasons, they went 10-14, then 14-11.
 
Which brings us to today.
 
The Cougars’ record stands at 8-5.
 
Lifson and Buell, those two forwards pressed into service as freshmen four years ago, are now senior co-captains and team leaders. They’ve grown into their roles and set the tone for a cohesive unit. They understand expectations. Their learning curve, once quite steep, is much gentler.
 
“My freshman year was definitely a rebuilding season,” said Lifson. “I know what it’s like being the youngest on the team and how hard it is to work your way into a starting position and keep it. And I know how to deal with the losses and manage the wins.”
 
Despite the graduation of All-LIS and All-Metro point guard Tierra Morris, who now plays for Gettysburg College, and three-year starter Avery Freeman, the Cougars have returned a nucleus that includes, in addition to Lifson (5-10) and Buell (6-0), Chandler Eddleton (5-8), and Abby Freeman (5-8). Freshman guard Amani Kimball-McTavish (5-6), who transferred from St. Michael’s School, has played well beyond her years.
 
Ambrose Freeman (5-7), Isabella Vita (5-10), and Katherine Ducharme (5-11) have provided depth and solid performances off the bench.
 
Eddleton averages 13.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.2 steals, and 2.5 assists per game. Abby Freeman’s line reads 13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.6 steals, and 2.4 assists. Lifson averages 9.8 points and 4.0 boards. Buell is the third squad’s third leading rebounder (5.4). As a team, the Cougars average 11.1 steals and 8.4 assists per outing.
 
“This is a competitive group,” Fleming said. “They really want to do well. They’re positive and energetic and want to make the experience as great as it can be. The potential has been there that we could be this good, and we’re acting on that potential. We know we can control our destiny if we play our game.”
 
Which is?
 
“Our game starts with good, aggressive man-to-man defense which feeds into the offense,” Fleming said. “We’ve also become an offensively balanced team where one person can take the lead one day and another the next. We have people who can shoot from outside. If we need to go to the basket, we have people who can do that. Offensively, the responsibility isn’t falling on one person’s shoulders.”
 
Time will tell for certain, of course, but a tone-setter for the Cougars this season might have actually been a loss: 58-56 to Matoaca in the Clover Hill Tournament over Winter Break.
 
“That’s where we really maximized our intensity,” Fleming said. “It opened our eyes to how hard we can play. That was great basketball: when you’re letting it all out there and playing hard and shots are falling for both teams. It’s had positive effects since then.”
 
This past Friday, though, the Cougars fell to perennial LIS and VISAA power St. Anne’s-Belfield 61-29. Tuesday, they dropped a hard-fought 63-60 decision to Trinity Episcopal, the top ranked team in the Richmond Times-Dispatch Top 10.
 
There’s no doom and gloom, though. Never has been. Won’t ever be. They competed. That’s all coaches can ask. That’s all they can ask of themselves.
 
“We’ve always had a big-picture mentality,” said Buell. “We don’t get down on ourselves. Whatever we don’t do well, we work on the next practice. It’s always been a fun environment, but this year everyone has challenged each other to be better by playing good defense so our offense will get better and vice versa. And seeing the potential of our team…that’s getting us even more ready.”
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