CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the girls basketball coach at George Washington High School, Jamie LaMaster easily could have entered the 2013-14 school year with a dour outlook.
The Patriots (16-9 last season) fell short of a State Tournament appearance in 2013, falling to Princeton in a Region 3 co-final. The same night, GW's cross-town rival Capital - a team GW had squashed 61-35 in sectional play four days earlier - shocked the state by knocking off top-ranked Greenbrier East and earned its own ticket to the Charleston Civic Center.
The Patriots lost point guard Rachel Ward to graduation. She now suits up for West Virginia State University.
During the out-of-season coaching period, top returner Kelli Jo Harrison tore her ACL that required surgery, an injury that often forces a player to miss a season to recover.
Yet with the Patriots opening their regular season against 2013 State Tournament semifinalist Spring Valley on Dec. 12, Lamaster is smiling like the cat that ate the canary.
"We've got a pretty good group of kids. We've already scrimmaged Ironton, Ohio, and Eastern Meigs and beat them both," LaMaster said Tuesday. "Eastern was in the final four in their classification in Ohio, and they've got a lot of speed.
"With Ironton, we got a contrasting view. They were kind of bigger and more athletic," LaMaster said. "We left kind of surprised. Myself and the coaches were really kind of pleased."
Harrison's injury, as it turned out, enabled GW to work to find offensive solutions with available players, instead of spending the off-season figuring out the best way to get its star the ball more often.
As a result, LaMaster said he discovered that his team can match up well with most types of opponents.
"Kelli's injury was very, very unfortunate, but the timing of it allowed us to find out what else we had," he said. "Now we're up to eight kids who can really play. We're so versatile, we can go with a small, athletic lineup or can go with a bigger lineup.
"Our biggest challenge this year is going to be finding the right combination. The plus is that all these kids are going to be here this year and next year."