By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- All season long, Millbrook has tried to approach every game the same way. They've tried to focus simply on doing what they do and doing it well.
Even though the Pioneers are playing Southampton at James Madison University today in the Group AA, Division 3 state quarterfinals, they are taking the same approach as always.
"To me it's just another game," Millbrook junior Courtni Green said. "It's exciting just to play somewhere else. But we're just going to take it as another game."
Millbrook has won 47 consecutive games, including winning the Group AA, Division 3 state title last year.
Two years ago, the Pioneers knocked off Greensville County in the state quarterfinals at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center before putting up a strong fight to eventual champion Freedom in the state semifinals. Last year, the Pioneers easily defeated Warhill in the state quarterfinals at JMU before winning the state title at VCU. So the Pioneers have plenty of experience in big gyms.
"I would like to think this isn't new to us," Millbrook coach Debby Sanders said. "We won't be awestruck from going down there and playing at JMU. I don't think these kids will be in awe of the facilities."
Southampton will have the huge disadvantage of having to travel almost four hours to Harrisonburg, but the team planned to drive up Friday and stay in Harrisonburg on Friday night.
The experience will be completely new to the Indians, who aren't used to playing in the state tournament. The team finished second to Brunswick in the Southside District this season. However, the Indians did beat the Bulldogs, who like to use a full-court press much like Millbrook, once this year.
The Indians lost their first three games of the season, but have since won 18 of their last 21.
"I really am very surprised at how well we've done," Southampton coach Aronda Bell said. "They're a good group of kids."
Bell said she's used different lineups throughout the season, depending on who the opponent was. Seniors Regina Artis, Ronnie Powell, Latoria Parham and Tenicia Joyner all start for the Indians, while senior Sherece Falkins and freshman Talisha Jenkins have split the other starting spot throughout the year.
The Indians have some size, with five players 5-foot-8 or taller. Sanders said even though her team is undersized, it hasn't been a problem for the Pioneers all season, especially in the Region II final against Western Albemarle.
"Fortunately for us, we've been able to get into the passing lanes and take care of that," Sanders said of the Pioneers' lack of height. "Western was a heck of a ballclub. They were huge. I was really surprised how well we were able to adjust to their height.
"We have to stay out of foul trouble and we have to knock down shots."
Knocking down shots has not been a problem for the Pioneers this season. Millbrook is shooting 45.8 percent from the field as a team. The Pioneers are averaging 78.6 points per game.
As good as they are offensively, everything starts with defense for the Pioneers. Millbrook likes to use its defensive pressure to cause turnovers, which lead to easy points.
The Pioneers are allowing only 35.2 points per game and have given up 50 or more points only twice this season.
Sanders said one of the keys to the team that often gets overlooked is the play of the bench. Millbrook's reserves average 21.2 points per game and help give the starters a breather if they need it.
"We have a lot of depth that can step in and fill in at any given time," Sanders said. "They really pull for each other. The starters, when they come out, they want the others to be successful, too."
With the streak the team has going on and the fact they are getting close to their goal of repeating as state champs, Sanders said the players are under a lot of pressure. Sanders said the coaching staff tries to relieve that pressure from the players by making sure that the players are having fun, including a planned trip to go bowling this week.
"Everybody will tell you getting the first [state title] is tough -- trying to get another one is that much harder," Sanders said. "We don't dwell on winning or losing. Every team is going to lose at some point, that's just a given.
"As long as you've given your best effort and you know that, there's no shame in that."