Ireton girls start a winning tradition

The old gymnasium at Bishop Carroll High School in Washington is rich in basketball tradition. Old black and white pictures off in a corner pay tribute to legends who got their start there, like former Georgetown Coach John Thompson and NBA standout Eddie Jordan.

But for the girls basketball team of Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, there's another sort of history that comes to mind when visiting Carroll.

"Usually when we come here, we get killed," said senior forward CeCe Leone. "They're big, they're tough and they're fast."

Year after year, Ireton has been on the losing end of lopsided scores - until this year.

In a season where Ireton has been changing history, the Cardinal's 65-59 win mirrors the entire careers of seniors like Leone and Alex Stipano, who leads the Washington area in 3-point shooting and free throw percentage. They were down big early and clawed back, perhaps improbably, to win in a place where they've only ever known defeat.

Two years ago, the team didn't win a single conference game. The Cardinals lost more than 60 consecutive conference games spanning several seasons a few years back. But even though the roster is largely unchanged under first-year coach Jason Harris, the Cardinals now find themselves 12-8 overall with three Washington Catholic Athletic Conference wins, including two on the road.

"It's amazing what you can accomplish when nobody cares who gets the credit," said Harris. "We've talked a lot about being unselfish, taking the best shot, not for yourself, but for the team."

Harris is quick to deflect credit onto the players. He said he told the players before the game what a special place Carroll is, with the crowd so close they seemed to be on the court. He told the seniors that they'll never play there again, that they might as well make their last memory of the gym a winning one.

But halfway through the first quarter, Ireton seemed headed for another blowout loss.

In the first few minutes, Carroll was up 12-4. Harris called a timeout. He told the team to settle in and relax. He knew Carroll would come out aggressively and try to set the tone, paying especially close defensive attention to Stipano. She scored a season high 34 points in Ireton's 70-65 win at home earlier in the season.

On the first play after the timeout, however, Stipano cut through two defenders and banked in a three-pointer from about two feet from behind the line to make it 12-7. Ireton forced an offensive foul, then Stipano lofted another three-pointer on the next possession. The shot banked in a fraction of a second just after the buzzer.

The three-pointer didn't count, but the momentum shift did. The noisy gym fell quiet except for a section of cheering Ireton parents. Ireton never let up, going on an 11-4 run to close out the quarter.

Leone handled the scoring load. She scored no more than eight points in her first eight games. Since then, she's scored in double figures in 11 out of the last 12 games, including a stretch of three games between Jan. 7-10 in which she put up 20 or more each game. Her 31 points against Carroll was a career high.

"You just have to take the opportunities you get, and whoever's on fire, you just have to make sure you get them the ball," she said. "It's just working together."

Stipano, who has been a huge offensive threat throughout the season, scored seven points, while Michelle Montgomery scored 13 and Paige Russell scored 8, including a clutch three-pointer that tied the score 53-53 in the fourth quarter.

The question after the win was how a team that's been perpetually at the bottom of the standings has all of a sudden rattled off a dozen victories despite no major differences in the roster.

"I think it started with our coach because in the past few years we've just gotten down on ourselves for not winning, and then this year it's just been a new attitude," Leone said. "We practiced so much before the season on our shooting and fundamentals. We're solid on the fundamentals, and I think that helps us work together."

For Stipano, the Carroll gym is filled with memories. And she hopes for the underclassmen that the win will prove to be one that helps instill a rich tradition of winning at Ireton.

"You walk into the locker room and you think, 'Oh, I remember halftime last year,'" Stipano said after the win. "And now it's different. So hopefully the kids after us next year can think, 'Remember last year when got that win against Carroll and just slowly started changing the program.'"

One big difference is the belief that, even down by a lot of points, the team can come back if they execute fundamentals, Stipano said.

"We know what we have to do to come back and win a game, it's just whether we stay composed and execute. We know we can beat these teams, but it's all mental."

Harris took over at Ireton after more than a decade in coaching following a standout playing career at Fordham University in New York. He said he told the team before the game not to be intimidated by Carroll's history but to embrace it.

"It's a special place," he said. "It's a great atmosphere. The building is loud. I told the seniors this is the last time you're going to see Carroll and you're going to remember it for the rest of your life."

McElhatton is a newspaper reporter living in Alexandria. He can be reached at jimmcelhat@gmail.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015