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One last hurrah for St. Joe girls

Feb. 26, 2014 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- For Huntington St. Joe girls basketball coach Shannon Lewis, it seems like just yesterday that he was leading a crop of wide-eyed, talented freshmen to the Charleston Civic Center for their first state tournament experience.

Now, Lewis has blinked and those same players -- now the six seniors for the Irish -- are getting set for their final postseason run.

"It'll be emotional for me," Lewis said. "I've known all six of them since fourth grade, so I've watched them grow up as a person and as a basketball player. It's going to be an emotional ride for them, us and the parents because I'm tight with them too -- especially where we travel as much as we do together."

Huntington St. Joe's postseason gets underway at home with a 7 p.m. Thursday contest against Hannan. The Irish are favored to win the Class A title for a sixth consecutive year. Considering their success in recent years against in-state competition, it is easy to see why.

The Irish seniors have never lost to a team from West Virginia, defeating in-state competition in 37 consecutive contests during a four-year span while also earning three consecutive state titles.

St. Joe is a tiny school at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 13th Street with only 140 kids roaming the halls. However, three of the 16 members of the girls basketball team have already committed to NCAA Division I scholarships.

"It just shows where girls basketball is in this city," Lewis said. "We've always had kids in this city with a lot of talent and that have done big things, but three for a school as small as ours is a big thing. It shows West Virginia girls basketball is where more Division I scholarships are signed than any other sport."

Two of the nation's top 25 point guard prospects in the Class of 2014 are part of the Irish legacy.

The leader of the Irish is Mychal Johnson, a Notre Dame recruit who is also a top candidate for the Mary Ostrowski Award given to the West Virginia Sports Writers Association's Girls Basketball Player of the Year.

Since starting as a freshman, Johnson has consistently led the Irish in scoring and assists while also being a leader in rebounding each of the last two years.

She has saved her best basketball for under the big lights -- the state tournament in Charleston -- where she has nearly averaged a triple-double.

Griffin Dempsey has also been penciled into that starting lineup since her freshman season. Dempsey, a Charlotte 49ers recruit, connected on her 300th 3-pointer for the Irish in January.

Johnson and Dempsey have created one of the state's most lethal 1-2 punches in girls basketball, regardless of class. Johnson is averaging 20.7 points per game while Dempsey is at 16.1.

"It's something you have to work extremely hard on each day on all the fundamentals," Lewis said. "You either work and work and work or you get embarrassed, tuck your tail and quit. They've put the time in and it's a tribute to the work they've put in every day."

Asia Petitte, who has missed the last few weeks because of a foot injury, is expected to make return in the regional round and has joined Johnson and Dempsey as Division I futures by committing to Evansville.

Rachel Lee is also a senior gaining college attention with averages of 13.2 points and 5.9 rebounds.

Lee has stepped up big in recent weeks with huge performances. She finished with 16 points, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers, in a comeback win over Eastern Meigs while adding a career-high 28 points last week in a win over Class AAA Logan.

The Irish also have a strong supporting cast with Caitlin Gale providing big minutes off the bench down in the post and Kara Jeffrey also performing well when her number is called.

Lewis said the real success story of his team is how each senior has stepped up to show leadership on and off the court.

"Since a few games into their sophomore year, they've crept into their roles and accepted it," Lewis said. "There will be games where they step outside of it a little bit, but for the most part, we know what everyone is bringing to the table.

"The kids have accepted it and sometimes, it's harder for the parents to accept than the kids because the kids know what they are confident in with their abilities. But everyone has accepted those roles and we've been successful because of that."

Should Huntington St. Joe win its Wednesday matchup with Hannan, the Irish will host the Class A, Region IV, Section 2 championship at 7 p.m. Friday.