PENN LAIRD — MacKenzie Freeze doesn’t want last year being brought up at all.
It’s not because the Spotswood senior point guard doesn’t enjoy the memories, but because she said it’s time for the Trailblazers to turn their attention toward new goals.
“It gave us confidence, but something I’m trying really hard to do is not allow us to have big heads or even think about that,” Freeze said. “We’re not state champions anymore. We just have to keep working hard toward that goal and start brand new this season.”
Spotswood, the defending Virginia High School League Class 3 state champion, will begin its quest for back-to-back titles tonight at home at 6 p.m. against Wilson Memorial.
After losing just two key seniors — Nakaila Gray and Mary-Ruth Shifflett — from last year’s championship-winning team, the Trailblazers come into this season as the heavy favorites to win back-to-back state titles for just the second time in program history.
“This group has kind of been lucky,” Spotswood veteran coach Chris Dodson said. “Last year, the target kind of came off their back a little bit because of the year before. We still wore it around here, but I think the rest of the state expected someone else to win.”
The Trailblazers, which were led by junior forward Stephanie Ouderkirk last season, bring back the 6-foot-3 forward along with Freeze and shooting guard Lexi Bennington-Horton in their starting lineup, along with several key reserves.
Although having those three captains, along with six seniors and several other underclassmen that saw time off the bench a year ago will be key, Spotswood players said they’ve still had to focus on bringing first-year players up to speed this preseason.
“Every year, we have that new fresh group that hasn’t been on varsity and is trying to get acclimated to the speed and the tempo,” Ouderkirk said. “It’s the beginning of the year, so there’s a bigger gap, but they’re quick learners and they’re getting there.”
Ouderkirk, Freeze and Bennington-Horton lead the SHS six-person senior class.
All three players have played significant roles for the Trailblazers the past few seasons, but have had to step up as leaders on and off the court even more than previous years.
“MacKenzie and Lexi have been very vocal on the floor,” Dodson said. “Rebekah Weaver has, too. Stephanie often leads by being the best player, making others better.
“Everyone is going to have different roles. I say it every year. It’s about how you accept those roles. Some people will sit on them and be satisfied and some will keep pushing. It’s about how we accept those roles and realizing there isn’t a ceiling for your role. Every day is a chance to get better and the better these guys get, the better we are.”
With the state-title win comes increased expectations this season, Ouderkirk said.
“It’s definitely a different team,” said Ouderkirk, the defending VHSL Class 3 Player of the Year and a James Madison signee. “We have different strengths, different things we need to work on. We feel different because we have a bigger target on our backs.”
That target, however, is something the Trailblazers have grown accustomed to recently.
Spotswood has been established as the area’s top girls basketball program during Dodson’s 17-year tenure as coach and has captured five state championships.
“I feel like Spotswood always has a target on its back,” Bennington-Horton said. “I think the girls know teams are going to play their hardest, come out their hardest every night.”
Bennington-Horton said one of the biggest challenges for the Trailblazers is getting younger players to have confidence each and every time they step on the court.
“The main thing we’ve had to help them with is feeling comfortable,” she said. “Obviously, every girl here is good. They just have to get used to playing on varsity. We are just trying to make them more comfortable and it’s making us better as a team.”
For Freeze, being a vocal leader has come naturally throughout her high school career.
Last year, Dodson challenged the savvy point guard to take on a bigger role in the Spotswood locker room and it paid off with Freeze developing a reputation as one of the better point guards in the Valley District and perhaps the entire state of Virginia.
“It’s kind of a replication of last year,” said Freeze, who is a Division II Shepherd signee. “I tried to take on that role last season. This year, I have had to be more vocal and teach more. In that aspect, I have had to pick up the leadership role a little bit and be more vocal.”
Ouderkirk said bringing the first-year players along is key not only for the Trailblazers’ success this season, but the future of the program after the six seniors graduate.
“It’s very important because once we leave, they’re going to have the same target on their backs,” Ouderkirk said. “We’re trying to get them to come along, join the culture. It’s fun and it’s tiring, but I think it’s going to pay off for all of us in the long run.”
When Spotswood begins its season tonight against the Green Hornets, Freeze said it’ll be a bittersweet moment for the seniors as they begin their final season with SHS.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Freeze said. “It’s exciting because it’s a journey. We’re all really excited because it’s something we’ve been working hard for. I’m excited to see how we come out and how some of the new girls show up when the lights are on.”
While the first-year players is something both the coaches and returners will have their sights on for the Blazers, one thing they won’t be talking about is last year’s success.
Because according to the three senior captains, it’s a new year with new goals in mind.
“Knowing that we won a state title is fun and all, but we can’t look at what we did last year,” Bennington-Horton said. “Right now, we’re confident but humble. We’re just taking it one game at a time.”