Freshman Clifton finds rhythm for Hawks

FRONT ROYAL – Skyline girls basketball coach Jim Kenney noticed the upward shift in Rachel Clifton’s performance on the court following the Hawks’ home game against Clarke County on Jan. 5.

That evening, the Hawks had just started the second half of what would eventually become a 52-24 loss to the high-powered Eagles and Kenney, not liking what he saw from Clifton’s on-court performance, pulled the freshman from the game.

“She was kind of reverting back to her old habits and I flat out told her if you’re going to do that, you’re going to sit here and you’re going to watch. If you’re not going to do what we ask you to do, if you’re not going to have the footwork and all the things that we work on in practice, I hope you enjoy it here [on the bench],” Kenney recalled before Skyline’s practice on Tuesday afternoon. “The next day in practice, from that moment on, her mentality really changed.”

Clifton has emerged as the go-to scorer for the Hawks this season, and the freshman delivered 54 total points for Skyline last week during a four-game stretch that included a career night for the young forward.

Clifton, who averaged 13.5 points per game last week, is The Northern Virginia Daily’s Female Athlete of the Week for Feb. 1-7.

“We’ve really worked on footwork. We’ve really worked on catching and being strong with the ball because she’d been on JV last year, and because she’s tall and she’s pretty athletic she was able to get away with not exactly having the best footwork,” Kenney said.

“This year it’s been a big adjustment for her.”

The highlight of Clifton’s week came on Feb. 3 against visiting Rock Ridge, when she scored a career-high 26 points and hauled in 15 rebounds in the Hawks’ 47-32 win against the Phoenix.

Clifton scored 18 of those points in the second half and powered Skyline’s decisive fourth-quarter surge with 11 points in the final period.

“I feel like I’ve gotten more into the game and I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better from the experience that we’ve had against the higher schools,” said Clifton, who leads the Hawks in scoring (10 points per game) and rebounding (10.6 rebounds per game) this season. “… I started feeling happier about our wins and I guess I got more confidence and I guess I pushed myself harder.”

Skyline got blown out by Northwestern District rival Sherando the following night, but Clifton was a bright spot amid an otherwise forgettable game for the Hawks. Clifton scored 15 of Skyline’s 24 points in the loss and snagged nine rebounds.

“I’ve gotten more aggressive,” Clifton said. “Actually the whole team, we’ve gotten more aggressive and we’ve gotten more into the game. We get after the ball. We’ve done a lot better since the beginning [of the season].”

Clifton combined for 13 points in Skyline’s final two games last week as the Hawks struggled in district losses to James Wood and Millbrook, but she got back on track Monday against Conference 28 leader John Champe. The freshman scored 15 points – including a pair of 3s – and grabbed 14 rebounds as the Hawks upset John Champe 45-34. It was the Knights’ first conference loss this season.

“This year has been a struggle as far as scoring, obviously. We haven’t scored a bunch of points. But these last six or seven games she’s finally coming on,” Kenney said of Clifton. “She’s starting to figure it out. She’s catching up with the speed of the game at the varsity level. And even against the good teams she did well.”

Clifton hasn’t just been scoring for Skyline this season. Kenney said Clifton’s defense has improved throughout the winter, and he noted that her progression on that side of the ball has been accelerated as she’s had to defend some of the best players in the Northwestern District. Her 10.6 rebounds per game is also the best mark in the area for girls basketball.

“She’s got the mentality of an upperclassman as a freshman,” Kenney said. “She’s been around the game. Her parents are good basketball parents. They give her opportunities throughout the whole year to play AAU and things like that, and it’s paying off for her. She works year round at her game and it shows.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com