By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
FRONT ROYAL -- Just the thought of it lines a smile along Jaclyn Ayers' face, and brings a sparkle to Jenna Smoot's eyes.
Basketball season. When the volleyball kneepads are tossed aside, and the high top sneakers are laced up. For Strasburg stars Ayers and Smoot, this is it. This is opening night, the night they've spent nearly a year waiting for.
"I look forward to this every year," Ayers said. "This is my ... "
The senior trailed off, flashing a smile, shaking her head, and jovially tapping her palm against a nearby wall. "I just like basketball a lot ... there's something about basketball, you have to really prepare yourself for the game."
And as each Ram came out of the visitor's locker room at Warren County High School, a convincing 50-20 victory over the Wildcats only minutes in the past, the smiles seemed hard to contain.
"Basketball is my absolute favorite, so it's nice to be back out and playing again," said Smoot, who along with Ayers, Stephanie Conde and a handful of others on the Strasburg Rams are barely a fortnight removed from playing in the state volleyball semifinals.
Yet somehow, the Rams hit the hardwood as though they'd had months to prepare for their season opener, rather than the 10 days they actually had. In little more than two quarters of play, Smoot scored a game-high 11 points, while Ayers and Conde each added nine.
With six seniors on the team, it's little wonder the Rams have been able to pick up where they left off last season, when they marched all the way to the Group A, Region B, Division 2 semifinals. The ball moved seamlessly from player to player, and cross-court skip passes found their mark before the subsequent pass found an open player.
Indeed, the fluid, cohesive movement between Smoot, Conde and Jennifer Jackson on the blocks led to a series of uncontested shots in the paint, as did the fleet cuts of Ayers and Brandy Clem.
"The first day of practice, bam, we were already in it," Ayers said. "[Strasburg] coach [Joel] Morgan was really impressed with that, and I was, too.
"This year we know a lot and so we're working hard to work on other plays."
Like splashing into a pool of cold water, without suffering the initial shock of freezing temperatures.
"I think that goes back to the fact that we've got a lot of seniors on the team who, most of us, have been playing varsity since we were freshman or sophomores," Smoot said. "Our offense is working for us."
The only inconsistency from last season seems to be that Ayers is running the point in the absence of former point guard Lauren Stickles, who graduated in June. Ayers, who spent the summer honing her ball-handling skills, said that while her role is different from what it was last season, she's adjusting nicely.
When Ayers wasn't in the game, sophomores Corissa Alsberry and Katlyn Ayers, Jaclyn's younger sister, controlled the ball. Katlyn Ayers, a cross-country state champion, sizzled and sparked the ball up and down the court, and looks to have a promising season ahead of her, according to Morgan.
"I think as she gets a little more time under her belt she's just gonna get better," Morgan said. "And it's good to get her quite a few minutes out there tonight. As the season wears on, we're gonna need some tough minutes out of her."
For Warren County coach John Kelly, whose team comprises three starting sophomores, the loss can at least be taken in a positive light. Though only four Wildcats recorded any points -- Brianna Caison scored a team-high eight points -- Kelly said that playing against a defense as stingy as Strasburg's can only help solidify Warren County's high-tempo offense in the future.
"I think a lot of that was inexperience," Kelly said. "Just learning to play the good teams that have the guard power and the inside power to come after you like that, that's how we get better."