RICHMOND - The Gate City girls basketball team will be making its third consecutive Group A Final Four appearance today at Virginia Commonwealth University's Siegel Center.
With the exception of graduated guard Brittany Rogers, this is basically the same team that went last year. So why does this year feel so different?
For one thing, the Lady Blue Devils are riding to Richmond as the defending state champions.
Furthermore, Gate City (26-3) takes on an opponent with something to prove when it faces Clarke County (24-4) in tonight's 6 p.m. semifinal game.
Last year, the Lady Blue Devils beat the hitherto-unbeaten Lady Eagles 56-41 in the championship game.
"The roles are reversed a little bit. We were sort of the underdogs last year. Nobody knew anything about us," said Gate City coach Hugh Godsey, whose squad lost to Radford in the 2005 state championship game.
"It's going to be really tough to get by them," Godsey added. "They're definitely a quality team. The final margin was no indication of how close last year's game was."
It's very much a rematch. Clarke County returns seven veterans of last year's heartbreak. Gate City returns at least as many.
"There aren't a lot of differences, to be honest," said Clarke County coach Tim Lawrence, who would rather face Gate City sooner than later. "Both teams have so many returners. We run our same system and they appear to be running theirs.
"They're a great team and you want to measure yourself against great teams. When you get to the state semifinals, you're not going to play any weak teams. You've got to beat all comers."
Both schools have benefited from an unusually deep pool of talented girls athletes. In addition to basketball, Clarke County also has excelled at the state level in cross country, soccer, and track and field. Gate City's other strong suits have been volleyball, softball, tennis and track and field.
Taylor Warner, a 5-foot-10 senior guard-forward, leads the Lady Eagles with 12.8 points per game. Post Jill Hobbs averages eight points and five rebounds per game while guards Keely McCall, Leslie Hardesty and Danielle Moyer average 5.6 ppg apiece.
Maddie Crosby, a 6-foot senior center, is getting 12.8 points and nine rebounds per game during the postseason after sitting out most of the season due to injury. Taye Payton averages five points a game off the bench.
"They're still as athletic as ever," Godsey said. "They put a lot of pressure on you. At times last year, we didn't handle it well."
Forward Haley Odle leads the Lady Blue Devils with 13.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game while forward Tuesdee Woods manages 10 points and 4.5 boards per outing. Heather Odle (8.5 ppg) runs the point while forward Ashton Bishop (7 ppg, 6 rpg) brings height, athleticism and leaping ability to the table.
Gate City also benefits from athletic role players like 5-10 senior center Kaitlyn Musick and guard Samantha Horner.
"They're still strong in the post and have excellent guard play," Lawrence said. "We feel like we're a year better and stronger as well."
In Thursday's other bracket, top-ranked Floyd County takes on Stonewall Jackson at 2 p.m. The championship game is set for Saturday at 11 a.m.