By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
FALLS CHURCH -- For Central's girls basketball team, just playing in a regional game for the first time since 2006 was a great learning experience.
The Falcons' season came to an end Wednesday night in a 78-44 loss to George Mason in the Region B, Division 2 quarterfinals, but the young team still had plenty to be proud of as they walked off the court for the final time.
Throughout the season, Central (7-11) showed glimpses of what the future might hold. There was a 47-45 win over Shenandoah County rival Strasburg, which at the time was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press Group A poll. There was a 62-49 victory over Riverheads, the top team in the Shenandoah District. Even against George Mason, the defending Group A Division 2 champions, the Falcons showed a spark in the second quarter led by a group of young players.
"I think the Strasburg game and the Riverheads game really showed what we were capable of doing," Central junior Ashley Jernigan said. "We just need to play like that all the time."
It didn't take long for the Mustangs (17-2) to flex their muscles against the Falcons. George Mason's full-court press gave the Falcons lots of trouble, resulting in nine first-quarter turnovers. The Mustangs built an 18-3 lead and didn't look back.
Central had pulled off big upsets before and the Falcons had reason to believe they could slay another giant, but things quickly got away from them.
"We knew we're the underdog coming in here," Central's Brea Hinegardner said. "We felt like we had everything to gain. I think we were nervous. We got out there and we just got all wide-eyed."
The goal all season for the Falcons was to make it to regionals, and after a loss to Stonewall Jackson last week in the Shenandoah District tournament quarterfinals, they thought their dream was lost.
"After we lost to Stonewall we all said our goodbyes and had our final remarks," Hinegardner said. "Then the next day we found out we were still going to be playing. Everybody got excited that we got to be together for a few more days."
While the Falcons have struggled over the last few years, the Mustangs have been rolling. George Mason has a 15-player roster, including six sophomores and a freshman. The Mustangs won the Bull Run District regular season and tournament titles this year and mostly dominated their opponents in the district.
George Mason coach LaBryan Thomas said he wasn't happy with how his team played in the tournament final, a 45-37 win over Strasburg, but he felt they responded well against Central. With the win, the Mustangs will now play Strasburg for a third time on Friday at Eastern Mennonite University in the semifinals.
"It's tough to beat a good team three times," Thomas said. "I'd rather not have to play them again, but it looks like we'll have to see them."
Central coach Stephanie Mathews said the Mustangs are a good model for her players to see what it takes to be at the top. The Falcons won the Group A state title in 1997, a team Mathews was on, and the program hasn't been able to get back to that level since.
"I think a team like George Mason can inspire them," Mathews said. "I think seeing a team like that can open their eyes a little bit to what it takes at this level."
For Hinegardner, who is also a standout volleyball and softball player, it was her first regional experience.
One of only two seniors on the team, she said she was happy to be part of the program the last four years.
"It's been great just to see the program grow," Hinegardner said. "It was a lot of fun.
"I'm really proud to be a part of the rebounding of Central's basketball program. I know it will keep growing to like it was back in the heyday."