Chief among the reasons was the Lady Blue Devils’ schedule.
That schedule included competing in a seven-team district that has dominated Class 2 girls hoops across the state for almost a decade.
The Mountain 7 District — along with its predecessor, the Clinch Mountain District — has produced the state champion in seven consecutive years. In the two years prior to that streak, the district had teams finish as state runners-up.
The district’s success at the state level dates to the winter of 2012 when Gate City made the state championship game but fell to George Mason. The next year, Floyd County defeated Wise Central.
But since 2014, the Mountain 7 has ruled the state. Central has five titles in that span (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019). Ridgeview (2016) and Gate City (2020) have one each.
Adding to its domination, the Mountain 7 had the state’s top two teams in both 2014, when Central beat Gate City, and 2016, when Ridgeview defeated Union.
THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN
This year’s state championship unfolded during a season in which Gate City finished 20-11. The Lady Blue Devils won neither the regular-season district title nor the tournament championship.
Gate City also did not win the Region 2D championship.
But the schedule the Lady Blue Devils played — and the level of competition it encompassed — prepared Houseright’s team to make a postseason run all the way to the state title.
“Records can be deceiving,” Houseright said just after the Lady Blue Devils won their first state championship since 2006.
The coach noted that her team’s loaded schedule included a holiday tournament featuring highly ranked squads as well as games against tough Tennessee teams such as Dobyns-Bennett and Daniel Boone.
After that, the Lady Blue Devils ventured into the heart of their district schedule.
“You play a Ridgeview or a Union or whoever in our conference. Then you turn around and play Dobyns-Bennett or Daniel Boone and you’re just like ‘I can’t get a break,’ ” Houseright said.
In the end, the rigors of playing in the Mountain 7 — comprising Ridgeview, Union, Central, Lee High, John Battle and Gate City along with Class 3 Abingdon — make a team ready for tough competition, Houseright said.
“From top to bottom, year in and year out, it’s great competition with battling and kids playing hard,” Houseright said.
WHAT A RUN
“It’s has been amazing. I hope it continues,” Central coach Robin Dotson said about the Mountain 7’s title streak.
The VHSL Hall of Famer owns six state championship rings in girls basketball. He said many factors play into the district’s success, with an emphasis on defense.
“My teams have always focused on defense and Gate City is a team built around defense,” Dotson noted.
Defensive play has always been big in the Mountain 7.
“And everybody in the district plays a different kind of defense,” Ridgeview coach Donnie Frazier said.
Frazier guided Ridgeview to the 2016 state title in the school’s first year, just one season after leading Clintwood to the Group A championship.
“It’s just tough every single time you go out there,” Frazier said. “It’s like any given night, it’s just whoever shows up and makes two or three more plays that night is going to win.”
Another factor Dotson and Frazier both agree is big? Coaching consistency.
“We have a lot of good coaches and they’ve been around for a while,” Dotson said. “That’s a problem with a lot of programs in the east. A lot of those programs see a lot of coaching turnover, and that hurts.”
Frazier said because they all know one another, when one team advances out of the district and region and reaches the state tournament, their fellow coaches become that team’s biggest cheerleaders.
“We share what we can about the other teams and try to help in any way we can,” Frazier noted. “So when a team makes it, they’re getting a lot of coaching knowledge. Really when you make it to state against one of us, you’re playing against the whole Mountain 7.
“If you’re going to win the state championship, you’re probably going to have to beat one of us.”
GETTING THE JOB DONE
The biggest factor, the coaches agree, is players and coaches both working harder than anyone else.
“When you see one team from your district win the state, it makes you want to get right back to work on the next year,” Dotson said.
“If you get out of the Mountain 7, your chances of winning the state go up,” Frazier said. “All of our kids put in a lot of hard work and it pays off.”
FUTURE REMAINS BRIGHT
The success of the Mountain 7 is likely to continue, at least for the foreseeable future, Frazier said.
“We have a young team, (Central) is young, and Gate City has a young squad. And Union has the young group that is coming up and they’re going to be right in it,” he said.
“It will be a dogfight for the next few years. And with the coaches we have in this district, it’s just going to keep being tough.”
Frazier, Dotson and Houseright agree that the upcoming years will present tough challenges in trying to win the Mountain 7 crown. But they also agree that the team that makes it out of the district has a better than average chance of bringing back a state trophy.