BUFFALO GAP – It was 13 months ago when things were looking really promising for the Buffalo Gap girls basketball team.
The Bison finished the 2014-15 season with a 14-10 record and a roster with no seniors. It was looking like the following year could be a great one for Gap head coach Phillip Morgan.
But then things started happening. Two key contributors decided not to return and concentrate on other sports instead. Then in the first few days of practice, juniors Campbell Thompson and Elizabeth Hanger were lost to season-ending injuries. That left the Bison with just two seniors, one active junior and a bunch of sophomores and freshmen.
Despite all the adversity, Morgan held Buffalo Gap together and advanced his team all the way to the Group 2A state playoffs. And for doing that, Morgan has earned the honor of being the All-City/County Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
Morgan is certainly not unfamiliar with Buffalo Gap basketball. He played his high school ball there and coached the girls team from 1995-2005. He stepped down after the death of his father in ’05, but returned last year and led the young squad to the 14-win season. This year, they won 20.
Despite all the setbacks in the offseason, it was not like the cupboard was completely bare. The Bison had a pair of special seniors in Destiny Harper and Shelby Stenzel to go with all the youngsters.
The key to the success was the development of the sophomores, including Hannah Varner, Marybeth Strickler, Leah Calhoun and Camille Ashby.
“They needed to grow up in a hurry,” said Morgan of his young players. “Some of them had to play out of position. But I thought that they did grow up over the course of the year.”
Late in January, Gap was sputtering along with a 10-7 record. Then the Bison finished the regular season with five straight wins, including a 19-point victory over Stuarts Draft, a team they had lost to earlier.
“The winning streak really boosted their confidence,” said Morgan. “After that, we thought we might have something.”
All that momentum could have ended early in the Conference 36 tournament. Buffalo Gap had to open against East Rockingham, a team they had lost to twice already and had never beaten in the history of the school. Another loss to the Eagles would have brought the season to a quick conclusion.
Against East Rock, Gap overcame a 10-point deficit and pulled out a 59-52 win. That earned them a regional berth and even more confidence.
Victories against Clarke County, Brunswick and Nottoway in the Region 2A East playoffs not only helped the Bison get a shot at the state tourney, but got the fans coming out in droves.
“One of the neatest things was to see the Buffalo Gap community get behind us,” said Morgan. “That made the excitement even greater. That just multiplied the excitement and the girls fed off that.”
Morgan, who gave plenty of credit to his assistant coaches, also had plenty of praise for his players. He said they were good girls, though sometimes that would work against them.
“I told them sometimes you need to be a little nasty,” he joked. “They seemed to enjoy being with one another. They kept working even after a hard loss.”
Even though the run came to an end in the state quarterfinals, there should be plenty of reason to be excited about the future of the program. Stenzel and Harper will be gone, but everybody else is scheduled to be back. If that happens, another deep run could be a strong possibility.
“I’m already starting to talk to them about next year,” said Morgan. “I’m excited and they’re excited.”