Girls basketball: Irish coach optimistic, team lacks experience
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When she was an All-State point guard during her time at Charleston Catholic (1995-99), Ashley Shepler was accused of being too unselfish at times in that she could have scored more.
But nobody has ever accused the Johns Hopkins graduate of being anything less than very smart.
With the luck that Paul Sutherland, her replacement on the Irish bench, has had so far an argument could be made that Shepler - Catholic's former coach - can also see the future.
Sutherland inherited a squad that finished 13-11 last season and was already thin on offense and size with the graduation of leading scorer Anna Wood.
Then 6-foot sophomore Catherine Bandak, the team's second leading scorer and rebounder a year ago, was lost for the season after tearing her medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament playing volleyball.
A couple of weeks later, 5-foot-10 sophomore Peri Bailey did the same during a fall league basketball game.
"She was going to help," Sutherland said of Bailey. "Of course you can't really replace someone as talented as Catherine."
Following a three-and-a-half year hiatus, Sutherland returns to the high school coaching ranks at the urging of his good friend Shepler. He coached Winfield to the 2003-04 and 2005-06 Class AA state championships.
Now he finds himself not only adjusting to Class A but doing so without a key returning player and another who was a likely starter.
Still, optimism abounds.
"I've been more impressed than I thought I would be," Sutherland said. "The girls are really working hard and eager to learn."
Returning starters include junior Anna Whelan (9.2 points per game last season), Samantha Fletcher, and Hanna Gallian.
Allie Persily is the only other returning player, meaning newcomers and freshmen will be counted on heavily.
Getting "lots of playing time" will be 5-8 Madison Helmeck - a guard from the middle school where she set a program record for 3-pointers made.
Peyton Mullen, Sophia Bumgardner, and forward Reagan Palmer are other freshmen expected to play big roles.
"Peyton is really fast," Sutherland said. "She can be a defensive stopper for us because she is just so quick."
Newcomers include senior Simone Assaley returns to the team after sitting out the last two years and Christina O'Dell, a softball player who Sutherland sees as a possible inside force.
"We can mix-and-match some line-ups," Sutherland said. "We can go small and quick or we can go pretty big."
The only seniors on the roster are Fletcher and Assaley.
"They, Sam especially, have been doing a great job providing leadership," Sutherland said. "And Anna and Hanna are really working hard."
He has enlisted the help of former Capital High and University of Charleston star player Lisa Lee to be one of his assistants.
"Lisa is doing a great job," said Sutherland of Lee, who played basketball professionally in Europe the last couple years. "And the girls know about her and really respond."
Following a pattern he established at Winfield Sutherland has beefed up the Charleston Catholic schedule.
"We should know pretty quickly how the season is going to go," Sutherland said. "I am really looking forward to it."
He is also already looking ahead in his own crystal ball.
"We only have the two seniors and Catherine and Peri will be back next year," Sutherland said. "We will be okay."
The Irish have home and away games with Summers County, defending Class AAA champ Greenbrier East, and Class A state tournament team Pocahontas County along with a game against defending Class A champion St. Joseph.
Catholic opens at home on Dec. 5 against Wahama and hosts Parkersburg Catholic on Dec. 7.