The freshman campaign for head coach Rusty Smith’s Warlassies’ basketball team isn’t going as drawn up, but a constant remains throughout – the outstanding scoring of senior Chesney Gardner.
“Right now, she’s our biggest offensive threat, so playing through her and allowing her to dictate different things on the court is who we are as a team,” said Smith following a recent loss against a 15-0 Mountain Heritage team. “She’s got to do the bulk of our scoring for us to compete. That doesn’t mean we don’t have players that can contribute in other ways, but offensively right now it goes through her.”
As of Jan. 27, Gardner was handily leading the Western Highlands Conference in scoring with a 27.3 points per game average. She led Avery County senior Heaven Nelson (21.0) by more than six points per outing. Gardner was also third overall in the state in 2A scoring, just a half-point out of second place behind Newton-Conover’s Chyna Cornwell. Gardner has committed to continuing her education and basketball at USC-Aiken following her graduation.
“I’ve had some opportunities that I haven’t had in the past. I’m bringing the ball up the court, which means I’m going to set up the offense,” said Gardner. “In practice, I’m finding the rhythm in my shot and rhythm in our offense.”
As the team has struggled, Smith sees the improvement that recently led to a 47-34 win over Polk County on Jan. 22. In that game Gardner dropped in 31, and was joined on the scorer’s sheet by sophomores Hannah Fortson, Addison Hamilton, and Hannah Larios..
“Execution is getting better. Right now, we turn it over too much, and execution is irrelevant at that point,” said Smith. “Skill-wise, we have to keep continuing to get a little bit better and keep continuing to do better in practice and eliminating turnovers.”
In addition to Smith and assistant coach Chastity Simpson, Gardner and the Warlassies have an additional tutor who is well-known to basketball fans in the region.
Hannah Calloway graduated from Montreat College in 2018 and was one of the team’s top three-point sharpshooters in recent memory. Prior to that, she won four state championships while a standout for the Carolina Day Wildcats from 2011-2014. She volunteers for Owen while working full-time at Asheville’s Access Family Services.
As a recent college graduate, she’s able to step onto the court to tutor the developing Warlassies.
“When I get the chance, I practice with them. I try to play good defense against them and have learned each girl’s weakness, so I try to make them better,” said Calloway “I try to be positive, because the season isn’t going how the girls want it to go. I try to make sure that I tell someone when they do something well.”
“I encourage the young girls as much as I can. As they get older, they’re going to get better. And we’ll win more and more,” said Calloway. “It’s all reps. That’s really all it is.”
For Gardner and the Warlassies, six games remained following the Mountain Heritage contest. Gardner showed no sign of let-up, nor did the remainder of a team during the loss.
Through it all, the task of staying motivated presents no challenge for the team’s talented senior.
“I don’t like to lose. I take it personally,” said Gardner. “Whoever is up next is our next victim. I give it everything I’ve got every game.”
The underclassmen are taking notice.