Six games in, the Owen Warlassies’ basketball team was 1-5 last week, not a place where they wanted to be in terms of wins and losses. Obscured by those two numbers is progress that is well underway.
First-year head coach Rusty Smith inherited a squad that graduated four of its five starters from last year.
To some measure it was a team from scratch – a new coach, a new scheme, and players new to a starting role on varsity.
“They’re working hard and we’re improving. By the practice, and by the game – which is what we’re shooting for,” said Smith.
The Warlassies didn’t have time to gradually gel. They opened against Erwin High School, a team that as Smith describes it.
“Is completely changed from last year’s team, he said. "They added three high-level players. But, it’s never bad to challenge them at the beginning and wait to see the growth that we’re seeing in practice."
Owen drew Erwin twice in their first five games, as well as having two contests against Asheville’s T.C. Roberson. All resulted in losses, but in rematches against both teams, the Warlassies closed the gap in the scoring column.
On Dec. 5, the result of their work was evident with a 65-52 win over the West Henderson Falcons. In that game, senior Chesney Gardner scored 35 points in her new role this season as a point guard.
“I watched a little bit of film from last year and the team was obviously very different than it is this year. They had a few more people that could handle the ball better,” Smith said. “Chesney is one of our better ball handlers, if not the best ball handler on the team, so we’re trying to use her every way possible that we can.”
“In our first scrimmage, I didn’t feel really great after because we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were all kind of scrambling together still and I kind of panicked a little bit,” Gardner said. “I wasn’t used to having to bring the ball up the court. That’s new to me really, I haven’t been a point guard since 4th grade. Now that it’s settling in, I trust my teammates and that they’re going to do the absolute best that they can.”
Smith has continued to implement an approach to a transition game on the court that doesn’t rely too heavily on new players perfectly executing the nuances of a half-court game.
“We’re getting them to buy into that philosophy of moving the ball up the court and trying to get some easy baskets before we even set up our offense,” said the head coach. “The last two games we’ve started to see that come to fruition and we’ve been successful with it. We’re seeing buy-in that’s going to help them get the most [scoring] in the easiest way possible.”
His senior leader on the court echoes the sentiment.
“Over the last couple of games, we’ve improved exponentially. We’re starting to click, and we’re starting to see things defensively and understanding,” said Gardner. “Our offense is a little slow, but we’re picking up on that a lot. I think we’re really improving.”
The senior, who is committed to play basketball at USC Aiken next fall, is effusive in her sentiment toward this year’s team.
“I’m excited for the season, and I love my teammates,” Gardner said.
Aiding her in the backcourt is junior Miriam King. King saw time on both JV and varsity last year, with more time with the latter as the season progressed. Along with Gardner, she’s taken on a leadership role as a team captain.
“She’s taken the lead as that second person you want to be able to count on,” said Smith. “She’s our second-leading scorer and she’s shot it pretty well this year, and defensively she’s done a good job.”
King has an understanding of her new role, and the challenges that the team will face this season.
“I’ve seen a lot of people give a lot of effort, and their skill level get a lot better, especially from the first game,” said King. “Our chemistry is still not there yet, but it’s getting better. A lot of us are new and haven’t played with each other before. We’re getting to know each other more and how each other plays.”
In addition to Gardner and King, Smith cited sophomore Hannah Fortson for her development in the post, as well as the work of sophomore Sarah Kahlil.
“She’s somebody who was just JV last and has come in and given a lot of effort,” said Smith of Kahlil. “She’s been a pleasant surprise.”
Last Monday, Smith and his team were at Owen Middle School watching the girls’ team play. In addition to their daily work in practice, the coach and his team were looking ahead and supporting other players who will eventually come up through the Owen system.
“We want to have a whole program mentality and come out and support these girls who will some day be up where we are," Smith said. "We want to make it one big community as a girls’ basketball program."