By Jason S Rufner
Special to Viva Loudoun
Of course, the faces and the names have all changed since the Eagles soared to back-to-back state championships in 2009 and 2010, riding a remarkable sequence of talented athletes guided by then-coach Jason Eldredge.
Now, after three seasons of failing to make even the regional tournament, the Eagles are presently perched atop the 5A North Conference 14 standings with a 13-2 record (5-0 in Conference 14 play after a 53-48 win over second place Broad Run Tuesday) under second-year coach Teddy Whitney.
That winning feeling is back for the black and gold – and the school is taking notice.
“Finally, the other kids are talking about how the girls are good. The spirit is coming back,” said 4-year varsity star Arnelle Collins, a slashing guard/forward with good shooting range. “It feels great to get our name back a little bit.”
Collins is one of four seniors — along with running mate Nicole Zubovich, returning guard Alexis James and German transfer student Sari Dahle — Whitney relies upon to provide stability on a 13-player roster consisting mostly of freshmen (2) and sophomores (6).
Not that the youngsters are lacking much. Whitney boasts that sophomore guard Carson Nizialek — who runs point on Freedom’s half-court offense — has played for Whitney on Amateur Athletic Union teams since she was eight years old.
“They’re all willing to work hard. We had a great turnout for fall practice … and we really trust one another,” said Whitney, a veteran assistant coach at various Northern Virginia high schools, now experiencing his first job as a program’s head.
So far, the experience has been positive. After missing much of the past season due to back surgery, Whitney has employed offensive versatility and defensive tenacity to help the Eagles climb toward their old heights.
“I like to push the tempo. We can also execute half-court. I think we do both very well right now,” the coach said. “The name of our game on defense is helping and pressuring. I love my 2-3 [zone] matchups.”
Whitney puts the length of 6-foot freshman Ashley Abernathy and 6-foot-1 sophomore Kelly Hartless to use in his zone defense. Offensively, Nizialek can sprint up the floor or can operate along the perimeter.
Nizialek, together with Collins and Zubovich, comprise a “very slashy” offense that is still able to slow down and execute, according to Whitney.
The Eagles’ only defeats have come from an overtime loss to Patriot and an eight-point setback at Loudoun County, another local girls basketball stalwart.
They have taken care of all other comers. Freedom came back from 17 points down in the final quarter to win at Heritage on Jan. 15. Two days later, Whitney’s club “executed to perfection” in a six-point win at previously unbeaten Woodgrove, marking the first time Freedom’s senior class had vanquished the Wolverines.
“It was amazing,” Collins said. “That was one of my goals before finishing my high school career, was to beat Woodgrove. It was awesome.”
The state title wins which hang proudly from banners in the Freedom High School gym don’t faze Whitney much.
“That was that team. This is us,” he said. “We can’t go by what Freedom basketball used to be. We have to build our own stepping stones.”
Freedom’s championship squads at the close of the last decade were propelled by a trio of superstars surrounded by role players. The Eagles of 2014, says Whitney, are blessed by good basketball players throughout the lineup.
“I think this is the most athletic team I’ve ever coached, all the way around. We’re very athletic,” Whitney said. “Sometimes we struggle in being physical enough, but that’s because we’re very young.”
Naturally, the success of a high school basketball season cannot be fully judged until the post-season playoffs are played out. But for now, the Eagles are once again enjoying the view from the top.