The Three Basketeers: Dale Trio Finds Success
By JACOB VAUGHAN, Sports Editor
Mar 7, 2013, 12:42
Duke University sophomore Ka’lia Johnson (14), a former standout at Thomas Dale High School, attacks the basket during an Atlantic Coast Conference game against Georgia Tech on Dec. 6. Johnson is one of three players from the Knights’ 2010 Central District-winning squad that went on to play at Division I programs. The others are College of Charleston junior Alyssa Frye and Maryland Eastern Shore sophomore Shawnee Sweeney (Duke Photography/Jon Gardiner).
High school athletic programs tend to be cyclical in nature, gradually rising to success before receding like ocean tides into rebuilding years. Occasionally, however, fortunate teams are suddenly uplifted by tidal waves of talent.
One such swell provided Thomas Dale girls basketball coach Kevin Coffey with three Division I-caliber guards on the same roster in 2010.
Then-senior Alyssa Frye, now a junior at College of Charleston, teamed up with then-juniors Ka’lia Johnson (Duke) and Shawnee Sweeney (Maryland Eastern Shore) to give the Knights one of the most prolific backcourts in the state.
“I was lucky that they came here,” Coffey said. “They worked hard and did what they were supposed to do. They knew what it took to get to the next level and they were willing to do it. You couldn’t ask for a better group.”
The trio led the Knights to Central District titles in 2009 and 2010, and Johnson and Sweeney helped the team secure the squad’s third consecutive championship in 2011. Thomas Dale reached the Central Region final in 2010 and 2011, but lost both times to perennial powerhouse Cosby.
The second of those setbacks – a 62-55 heartbreaker at the VCU Verizon Wireless Arena in Richmond – still stings for Johnson, whose illustrious high school career saw her accumulate more than 2,000 points and three district player of the year awards.
“I always think about that last game,” Johnson said. “I fouled out with like five minutes to go and we lost. It was rough.”
The Knights were ousted from the Group AAA tournament the following week, an ending that was not befitting of the journey. The star-studded squad set the school record for wins with a 25-2 season in 2010 and went 22-5 the following year.
Coffey said he implemented a run-and-gun offense to better suit the fleet-footed stable of guards, which also included 2010 graduate Andrea Hobbs (Christopher Newport). The veteran coach described the team as equal parts hungry and humble.
“They accepted what they had to do on the floor as opposed to fighting their roles,” Coffey said. “That made them shine.”
Frye said she didn’t grasp the rarity of the Knights’ talent-laden team until after she graduated. Sweeney, on the other hand, said she always expected the bunch to find success after high school.
“I think it’s great that we all got to go to the next level,” Sweeney said. “But I expected it. I always believed we were all great players capable of doing that.”
JOHNSON BIDING TIME
The most highly touted of the group, Johnson is in her sophomore season at No. 6 Duke (27-2). The 5-foot-10 shooting guard has appeared in 27 of the Blue Devils’ 29 games this season, accruing averages of 2.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 11.8 minutes per game.
All of those metrics have seen healthy increases from her freshman campaign, a development Johnson attributes to her ever-increasing comfort level.
“I definitely know the teams better and I know the personnel better,” Johnson said. “We play most of these teams twice a year, so you become very familiar with everything. There’s not as much nerves.”
Johnson has scored in double figures twice so far this season, racking up a career-high 11 points on Nov. 23 against Valparaiso and 10 against No. 25 St. John’s on Dec. 9. But the former first-team all-state selection said she is most concerned with the nitty-gritty facets of the game these days.
“I don’t really focus as much on offense here,” Johnson said. “In high school, it was easier to score, but here at Duke everybody has something unique about their offensive game. So I try to stick out on defense and with my rebounding.”
A triple-double threat at Thomas Dale, Johnson fell one point shy of her first collegiate double-double in a Dec. 6 outing against Georgia Tech. She racked up nine points and 11 boards against the Yellow Jackets.
The complexion of the Blue Devils’ season changed on Feb. 17 with the news of starting point guard Chelsea Gray’s season-ending knee injury, but Johnson said she is determined to do her part to fill the void.
“It just makes me work harder,” Johnson said. “[Gray] averaged 30 minutes, so that’s 30 minutes out there for somebody to step up and fill in.”
Duke will compete in this weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament as the No. 1 seed. Beyond that, Johnson has her sights set on loftier ambitions.
“We definitely want to get to the Final Four,” Johnson said. “Duke women’s basketball hasn’t been since 2006 when they went to the national championship game against Maryland. As for me personally, I just want to keep developing as a rebounding guard.
“I think it’s really important to be an effective rebounder.”
FRYE IS SIZZLING
When asked how she is enjoying her time at College of Charleston, Frye responded without hesitation. “I love it here,” she said. “The weather is great.”
The hot-handed guard’s recent form puts the temperate South Carolina climate to shame.
College of Charleston junior Alyssa Frye, a Thomas Dale graduate, broke the Cougars’ school record for 3-pointers in a single season on Jan. 28 (photo courtesy of CofC Athletics).
Frye broke the Cougars’ Division I school record for 3-pointers in a single season with nine regular-season contests to spare on Jan. 28. Whereas the previous mark was 63, Frye has now converted 83 of her 242 attempts (34.3 percent).
“I was blindsided by that,” she said. “I feel really honored. I was just trying to score for my team, and somebody told me that I broke the record.”
The 5-foot-8 junior has knocked down seven treys on three different occasions this season and her average of 2.96 made 3s per game ranks 15th in the nation.
Frye – whose brother, Desmond, plays football at Virginia Tech – attributed her long-range prowess to the Cougars’ up-tempo offense. The system, she said, is affording her more opportunities to pull up in transition.
“My coaches just tell me to shoot it,” Frye said. “They’ve given me the green light.”
Frye’s average of 12.4 points per game is second on the team, as is her standard 34.3 minutes. The Cougars won a tight race for the fifth seed in this weekend’s Southern Conference Tournament, thereby earning a first-round bye. CofC (15-14) will open its postseason slate on Saturday against fourth-seeded Appalachian State in Asheville, N.C.
“Whether we ended up fifth or sixth, I know my team would’ve fought either way,” Frye said. “I just feel like this is our year. I’m glad we got fifth. We’re going to show up and do what we have to do.”
KEEN ON SWEENEY
High school players of Johnson’s stature cast a broad shadow, and even teammates with Sweeney’s diverse skillset can sometimes be lost in the fray. When opposing teams overlooked the soft-spoken shooting guard, she made them pay on the court.
“I think some people might have forgotten about me,” Sweeney said. “I tried to use that to my advantage. I was kind of like that little weapon that nobody knew we had.”
Former Thomas Dale standout Shawnee Sweeney is averaging 7.5 points and 2.8 rebounds per game as a sophomore at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (photo courtesy of UMES Athletics).
When high-major college recruiters did the same, University of Maryland Eastern Shore coach Fred Batchelor cashed in.
“We definitely got a steal,” Batchelor said. “I think she just needed to be somewhere where she could develop and grow. I think you’re going to see her do some special things in her time with us because she’s the complete package.”
Like Johnson, Sweeney has played a considerably larger role in her sophomore season. The 5-foot-7 shooting guard posted averages of 7.5 points and 2.8 rebounds per outing.
She started 24 of the Hawks’ 26 regular-season games and scored a career-high 17 points in a win over North Carolina Central on Feb. 4.
“After last year, I don’t think a lot of teams knew who I was,” Sweeney said. “So I just came out with a spark and forced them to figure me out.”
Batchelor said Sweeney, who boasts a 3.7 grade point average, made light work of the adjustment from high school to college — a feat he chalked up to the player’s unique prep experience.
“I think it really built a level of mental toughness,” Batchelor said. “The level of competition really made it easier for her to transition from high school to college. I see that as one of the biggest things that these kids struggle with.”
UMES (7-19) will wrap up its regular-season campaign at Savannah State on Thursday before competing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament next week in Norfolk.
The rigors of high-level college basketball make it difficult for the former teammates to talk often, but they make a point of catching up when they can. Johnson saw Frye when their visits to Ohio overlapped earlier this year, and Sweeney says the triumvirate reconvenes in Chester whenever possible.
“It’s kind of hard keeping in touch during the season,” Sweeney said. “But when we all get a chance to go home, we reconnect, go to the YMCA and play together.”
After all, it was playing and practicing alongside and against one another that lifted the Chester natives to the upper echelons of the sport they love.
“I guess it’s kind of rare,” Frye said. “I was just honored to be able to play with them and share experiences with them. I never thought about where we would be in college, but I’m really glad that everybody is doing well.