STRASBURG – The conversation was a bit ironic.
It was meant to be one traversing the most successful season Strasburg’s girls basketball program has had in the last 15 years, and yet for most of the 20-minute conversation with Rams head coach Darin Jenkins, the topics of discussion were of the team’s low points during the 2018-19 campaign.
For a team that reached the Virginia High School League Class 2 state tournament, there were many.
Strasburg’s midseason meltdown and Jenkins’ regrettable words targeted at his players in a postgame interview, an injury to guard Maddie Smallwood well before the season started that forced freshmen Nyla Sperry and Maddie Stinnette to grow into significant varsity roles quickly, the what-ifs regarding the final 20 seconds of their state quarterfinal loss to Maggie Walker Governor’s School; all were discussed in detail during a sit-down with Jenkins, the Northern Virginia Daily’s 2019 Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
Almost lost in the background was the fact that Strasburg had won its first regional tournament championship in 43 years and made its first state tournament appearance since 2005.
“I think it’s a positive, too, that we’re sitting here and we’re talking about those things,” Jenkins said of the conversation’s constant turns to the darker sides of Strasburg’s season, “because it tells you the potential. … I know right now the fire’s burning inside of me, where you go back and you watch every game film that you played this year and you try to find things that you can do better. You try to get yourself better as a coach. And I know just from talking to the girls just in the past three or four days … the fire’s burning. I think what these girls were able to do for our program, we’ll reap the benefits of that for years.”
A new bar has been set for Strasburg girls basketball, but for the Rams to push it to a new height they had to first hit rock bottom.
That moment came when Strasburg went 4-5 during a nine-game stretch after starting the season 7-1. After the last loss of that tailspin, an uninspired 43-30 setback at home to Madison County on Jan. 22, the frustration that had been building in Jenkins finally boiled over.
Jenkins’ postgame comments publicly questioned the will and heart of his players. He’d reached a point where he wondered whether he’d lost the team, he’d say a month and a half later, and he admitted he wasn’t sure if a Strasburg team with so much potential would win another game. It was, he said, the first time he’d experienced such a degree of panic in his four years as head coach.
“I was starting to look myself in the mirror going, ‘what am I doing here, and is it me?’” Jenkins said. “Some of it probably was, after talking to (the players).
“Handling it the way I did was probably not the right way to do it,” he added, noting that by the time he got home after the Madison loss, he knew he’d made a mistake with his postgame comments, and he reached out to Strasburg athletic director Matt Hiserman and former longtime boys basketball coach Millson French for help the following day. “I know I got some people upset about it and I learned a lot from doing it that way, and I would certainly probably handle it differently if it happened again – hopefully it doesn’t. But I think it brought us closer as a team. You’re with this group of girls for four months, and you’re with them every night for a couple hours. You’ve gotta become close, and you’ve gotta be able to listen to each other and talk about problems you’re having, even outside of basketball. We started doing more of that, and I think everyone just started clicking and trusting one another a little bit more.”
The key to it all was a meeting between players and coaches to clear the air, one that was initiated by a text Jenkins received from junior Jaden Alsberry on the night of the Madison County loss.
Jenkins and assistant coach Frankie Conner sat down with Strasburg’s three team captains – Alsberry and seniors Debra Dillman and Daniella Henry – the next day to lay out all of the changes that needed to happen if the Rams were to salvage the season. A 45-minute meeting with the entire team followed.
“We all sort of agreed that the season was gonna start over right then at that point,” Jenkins said. “It wasn’t anything we did magically. They just dedicated themselves, they told me what they needed from me different, and I told them what I needed from them. We both did it, and it’s a credit to them for who they are. It really is.”
Two days later the Rams blasted Clarke County by 23 points, and the next night they beat James Wood by 7. From there, Jenkins said, Strasburg’s season had officially turned.
Those two victories started a string of 11 straight wins that included clean sweeps of the Bull Run District and Region 2B tournaments.
Strasburg (22-7) had evolved into a team that played unselfish basketball and understood its offense was most efficient working inside-out through its towering trio of Christyan Reid, Alsberry and Henry, who stand 6-foot-3, 6-3 and 6-2, respectively.
Sperry grew into her role as the Rams’ starting point guard – her 25-point effort in the regional championship carried Strasburg late in an overtime win over Page County – and Strasburg’s defense, led by a pair of defensive-specialists in Dillman and junior Karly Colcombe and the shot-blocking ability of the Rams’ bigs, became an imposing obstacle.
That defense failed to get back quickly enough in the state quarterfinal game against Maggie Walker, however, after Alsberry hit a go-ahead bucket with 20 seconds to play. That allowed Maggie Walker guard Emma Ragone to race past the Rams and convert a layup with 10 seconds left that put the Dragons up by one, and Strasburg’s season came to a screeching halt when the Rams couldn’t answer.
Jenkins blamed himself after the game for not calling a timeout after Alsberry’s bucket, and he said almost a week later that the loss was a tough one to get over.
“I know the 10 girls I had dressed out, I could’ve looked at any 10 of those in the last 20-couple seconds when we took that lead, if I would’ve called a timeout and looked them in the eye and said ‘your season’s on the line, you just need to go play defense for 20 seconds,’ I know they would’ve responded,” Jenkins said. “I know it would’ve been different.”
It’s the feeling that the Rams missed an opportunity for something even greater that stings the most, Jenkins said, but most of them will get another shot next season. Minus Dillman and Henry, Strasburg’s 2018-19 squad figures to remain intact, and they’ll return with their sights aimed very high.
“They turned the program around a little bit,” Jenkins said. “Now it’s the expectation. Now I think we’re expected to win, and now I think girls that come in that are coming up from the JV team will know, this where they got, this is what we need to do, and everyone will work harder. I just try to keep thinking about those things to try to get me through what happened (in the state quarterfinals).”