With 3rd state title, Monacan's girls leave their mark
Monacan High’s girls basketball team last suffered a season-ending defeat in February 2014, when it squandered a double-digit lead and fell to Woodrow Wilson of Portsmouth in the regional semifinals. As the Chiefs’ seven seniors walked off the court one victory shy of a state tournament berth, Coach Larry Starr consoled himself with the knowledge that there were brighter days ahead.
Prior to the 2013-14 season, Starr had decided to keep five freshmen on the varsity squad – including Megan Walker, a gifted 6-foot-1 guard who was already creating buzz as the nation’s top prospect in the Class of 2017. Walker wound up leading Monacan in scoring and rebounding. Classmates Alex Parson and Jaiden Morris joined Walker on the all-conference team. Watching his freshmen hold their own against bigger, stronger and more experienced girls, Starr knew they were special. If they stayed healthy and put in the work to keep improving, he said then, they had a shot at winning three consecutive state championships.
Prior to last Friday’s Group 4A state final against Kings Fork High of Suffolk, Monacan had won 82 of its last 87 games – most by lopsided margins – and secured back-to-back state titles in the Virginia High School League’s third-highest classification.
So when the Chiefs found themselves trailing by 11 points early in the fourth quarter, one might have expected a team so unfamiliar with losing to panic and collapse under the weight of their own lofty expectations. Instead, they showed the heart of a champion.
“We just had to keep our heads up,” Parson said. “We kept talking to each other: ‘One basket at a time. One stop at a time.’ We kept each other mentally in the game.”
Led by 35 points from Walker, who hit the game-winning shot with 15 seconds left, Monacan completed its three-peat and a perfect 30-0 season with a 60-59 victory. Reflecting on the accomplishment later outside his team’s locker room in the bowels of VCU’s Siegel Center, Starr described it as a testament to maturity.
“If we had been in that situation a few years ago, we might not have won,” he said. “I’ve watched them grow from little girls to young women and that’s how they acted tonight.”
Standing a few feet away from Walker’s current coach, her future coach perused the game’s final statistics as he waited for her to emerge from the locker room. Geno Auriemma, architect of the University of Connecticut’s women’s basketball dynasty, noticed immediately that Walker had missed nine of 24 free throws in the state final.
“She’s going to have to work on that,” he said with a smile.
Auriemma, a Hall of Famer who has won 10 NCAA Division I championships, has been a fixture at Monacan’s games since Walker’s sophomore year. He finally landed the nation’s No. 1 recruit last November, beating out Texas and Notre Dame, among many other schools.
In the final game of her storied high school basketball career, Walker displayed the full breadth of her talents. In addition to her game-high 35 points, she pulled down 11 rebounds, blocked six shots and added five steals. Walker scored her team’s last 16 points as Monacan outscored Kings Fork 28-16 in the fourth quarter.
“No. 32 decided she wanted to prove she’s the best player in the nation, and I think she did that,” Starr said. “She refused to lose.”
Monacan has dropped only one postseason game over the past three seasons – a 62-57 defeat to rival Midlothian in the 2015 regional final. Both teams advanced to the state tournament and the Chiefs avenged the earlier loss by beating the Trojans in the Group 4A final.
Monacan wouldn’t have had a chance to play for the state title that year if not for a jaw-dropping play by Walker at the end of the previous contest. With the Chiefs clinging to a one-point lead over William Fleming and just six seconds left, Walker missed a free throw, then sprinted to the other end of the floor and blocked a layup at the buzzer to preserve Monacan’s victory.
“It has been a crazy, tremendous career,” Walker said during a press conference after last Friday’s game.
The Chiefs became back-to-back state champions last season with another victory over William Fleming. With seven seniors and all five starters returning, they were prohibitive favorites to win it all again in 2016-17.
When Monacan beat nationally ranked Norcross High from Georgia en route to winning a Myrtle Beach holiday tournament last December, the only question in many people’s minds was whether it could complete the season with an unblemished record.
Monacan was nearly perfect last season, finishing 29-1. Its record over the past three years is 83-5. The Chiefs also became one of just four girls basketball teams in VHSL history – and the second from Chesterfield (Cosby 2014-16) – to win three consecutive state championships.
“I think this is, if not the greatest, one of the greatest girls basketball teams in the history of this state,” Starr added. “I don’t think there are many better.”
Now Monacan’s seniors finally can turn their attention to graduation and preparing for college. In addition to Walker, two other Chiefs have signed with Division I schools: Parson (Richmond) and Morris (Rider). Jasmine Norman will play next season for Division III Christopher Newport.
“It’s bittersweet that it has come to an end,” said Parson, who will play alongside her older sister, Micaela, next season.
“I’m honored to have played with these girls. They’re going to be really missed next year,” added junior forward Abby Oguich, Monacan’s lone returning starter.
While Starr acknowledged the difficulty of replacing so many talented players, he insisted the team’s goal next season will be the same as it has been throughout his tenure as coach: winning a state title.
“The one thing that happens in our program is the new kids get pulled along by the older kids,” Starr said. “This group did that – you’d see Megan working with the freshman girls in practice, trying to make them better. They learn what is expected of them very quickly. That kind of carries over.” ¦