Lady Saints reach first state final

Published 12:25 am Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Lady Saints marched onto an uncharted road on Friday night.

Defeating Norfolk Christian School 64-48 in the VISAA Division II state semifinals in Charlottesville, they became the first Nansemond-Suffolk Academy girls’ basketball team in school history to reach the state championship game.

“I felt we came out very focused tonight and ready to play from the beginning,” NSA coach Kim Aston said.

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She said she noticed the intensity in the pre-game warm-ups. Her team was not distracted, caught up in the moment like it was in Monday’s conference championship game that had a disappointing conclusion.

On Friday, Nansemond-Suffolk jumped out to an early lead against the Lady Ambassadors, “and we really never let up from that point on,” Aston said.

The Lady Saints led 17-6 after the first quarter, 30-19 at halftime and 45-30 after three quarters of play.

Aston, a former Lady Saints player herself, noted that the team was not eligible to compete for state championships until 2002, when the school switched to playing in the winter.

Nevertheless, it has come a long way since then.

“It feels really good to have made the championship game with such a young team this year,” Aston said.

Her starting lineup on Friday featured one senior, guard Sarah Higinbotham, two juniors, point guard Harper Birdsong and center Caroline Hogg, and two sophomores, guard Logan Harrell and forward Kelly Hogan.

Birdsong led all scorers with 26 points, 18 from the free throw line. She also grabbed nine rebounds and three steals.

“It’s an incredible feeling, and it was so nice to be on the other end of it,” Birdsong said.

Fresh in her mind was last year’s disappointing loss to The Miller School of Albemarle at the same point in the state tournament.

Birdsong’s efforts to avoid déjà vu were also evident on the defensive side of the ball, where she held Norfolk Christian star sophomore forward Madison Lowery to only two baskets from the field.

Kelly Hogan gave perhaps the best performance of her career Friday, producing 18 points and 20 rebounds.

“She was just a dominant force on the boards from the start of the game,” Aston said.

Hogan was motivated to avoid the foul trouble that kept her off the floor for significant parts of Nansemond-Suffolk’s last meeting with the Lady Ambassadors, a 50-49 NSA loss.

She also had a motivating force up in the stands, her brother and former NSA basketball standout John Hogan, who is now attending the University of Virginia.

“I just wanted to really play hard for him, because I’ve missed him a lot since he went off to college,” she said. “And I also didn’t want to let my team down, because it was states, and it was a really important game.”

Caroline Hogg continued to be a force for the Lady Saints offensively and defensively, contributing 12 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

Logan Harrell had the task of containing Norfolk Christian’s star sophomore guard Kiara Norman.

“Logan did a great job,” Aston said.

Harrell had seven points, six rebounds, three steals and two assists.

She was a key contributor on the state-champion NSA girls’ volleyball team earlier in the school year, and now finds herself playing an important role in another state title bid during her sophomore year.

“It’s really exciting for it to happen twice,” she said, adding she thinks her volleyball experience at this juncture will help prepare her for Saturday’s game.

The Lady Saints (21-5) will face the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association Division II defending state champion Miller School of Albemarle (21-2) on Saturday at 3 p.m. at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville.

“They’re tough,” Aston said of the Lady Mavericks. “They’re very fundamentally sound. They’ve got a big girl that’s about (6-foot-4-inches), so it’ll be a really tough matchup for us, but I think the kids are ready to play.”

Kelly Hogan said, “I’m not worried. I know that we can come out there, and if we play our game, we can bring home the win.”

Birdsong said, “I don’t think we’re just satisfied with getting to the championship.”