Thrice Champs Rebuilding

Young PM Girls Take The Floor With New Leaders

The past four seasons have undoubtedly provided the best run in Parry McCluer High School girls basketball history. Now, the Fighting Blues are preparing for life without the storied Class of 2019.

Over their four-year careers, last year’s nine seniors won the last three Class 1 state championships and finished with a 105-13 overall record. But Jayla Baker, Emma Camden, Tristen Clark, Allison Coleman, Madison Dunlap, Hailey Huffman, Peyton Mohler, Maggie Patterson and Makenna Smith have moved on from the high school stage – and now, the Blues find themselves in a rebuilding mode.

That’s a tough task for 10th-year head coach Adam Gilbert and his young charges in 2019-20. PM enters the season with a roster exclusively comprised of underclassmen – and only one player, sophomore Katie Claytor, who comes in with varsity experience.

“That group of kids definitely left their mark at Parry McCluer High School,” Gilbert said of the graduating senior class. “People on the outside looking in now expect PM girls basketball to be successful.”

Two of the Blues’ 2019 graduates are playing college basketball, with Mohler at Division II school Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia and Camden at Division III school Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista.

Even during their run of three straight state crowns from 2017-2019, the Blues focused largely on their own performance – and not on the abundant external pressure. In that sense, nothing has changed for PM this winter.

“Internally, we have the same expectations that we have always had since I’ve been here,” Gilbert said. “That is to put in the time and effort each day we are able to take the floor, in hopes of becoming the best basketball team that we can be.”

The Blues will certainly look for major contributions from their lone varsity returner. Katie Claytor didn’t just see mop-up time as a freshman last year; she averaged 11 minutes of game action, scoring just over four points per game and ranking as PM’s third-leading rebounder.

While most of Clay-tor’s points last season came around the rim, the 5-foot-10-inch sophomore has added a perimeter shot to her repertoire this season. Gilbert also believes that playing alongside last year’s senior group will pay dividends for the sophomore forward this year.

“Katie will have to be a leader for us this year, both on and off the floor,” Gilbert said. “She knows what it takes to reach the top and how much work and effort go into that.”

Claytor’s younger sister Anna joins the varsity squad as a freshman and will run the point for the Blues. At 6 feet tall, Anna Claytor has a good perimeter shot, and she’ll present matchup problems when she takes the ball inside.

The Claytors aren’t the only sister duo on the PM roster, as 5-7 sophomore twins Maddie and Grayce Henson move up from the junior varsity team. Grayce Henson’s minutes will come in the frontcourt, as she can score with her back to the basket, but she also has the ability to stretch defenses with her outside shooting. Maddie Henson can swing between the guard and forward spots, with her jump shot serving as her best asset.

The Blues were slated to have a second set of twins on the roster, but an offseason injury will keep sophomore point guard Kallie Grow off the court in 2019-20. Her sister Amber Grow (5-6) will play in the backcourt, where the Blues will count on her to knock down shots from the outside and also slide over to spell Anna Claytor at point guard.

Two more sophomores round out the PM roster: Makenna Moore and Sydney Taylor, who both stand at 5-6, will see time at the forward spots. Both players are a little undersized for the post, but they make up for that with their physicality and work ethic. That pair should provide an extra boost for the Blues on the glass and on defense.

Gilbert has been pleased with the improvement that his team has already made as PM approaches the new season.

“For me, groups like this year’s team make coaching fun,” he said. “You get to see them grow and develop over the course of the season. These kids have made tremendous strides from where they started in the early fall workouts to where they are at now. It will be a process, but it should be a fun one.”

The Blues’ assistant coaches this year, all returning, are Katelin Gilbert and Conrad and Katy Patterson, who continues to be head coach for the junior varsity team.

After taking on any and all challengers from larger divisions over the past couple of years, the Blues won’t run quite the same gauntlet in nondistrict play in 2019-20. Yet there are still plenty of challenges, from a date with Class 5 power William Fleming in PM’s Jaden Baker Tournament on Dec. 14 to a home-and-home series with Class 3 rival Rockbridge County on Dec. 19 at RC and on Jan. 4 at PM.

The Blues have run roughshod over the Pioneer District in recent years, but the playing field may very well be leveled this season. Covington and Eastern Montgomery are the favorites to unseat PM as district champions, although Gilbert expects Narrows and Craig County to contend as well.

PM’s unprecedented success – prior to the Blues, no Class 1 school in Virginia had ever won three consecutive girls basketball state championships – has created a legacy that this year’s team will try to live up to. That’s a tall order, to be sure, but it’s one that the Blues are looking forward to tackling.

“We may take some bumps early on – and that’s OK, as long as we are learning from those experiences and continuing to put forth our best effort,” Gilbert said. “To say our group has their work cut out for them would be an understatement, but I do think our kids will be up for the challenge.”

PM will tip off the season with a Pioneer District matchup against Bath County on Monday, and the Blues will play host to Buffalo Gap in nondistrict action next Wednesday. Both nights will start with JV action at 5:30 p.m.

The News-Gazette

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