Three years ago, Garrett showed some flashes. Two years ago, they won a Sectional title perhaps a year earlier than expected and may be overachieved a tad. Last year, they were knocked off just as things were looking good and they fell short of a return to the Regional round.
This year, we are all in on the Railroaders.
There are a lot of reasons why but it really does start with returning all five starters from last year, who all also started two years ago (though one for a different school). Three of these five found themselves in the starting lineup as freshman at Garrett three years ago. You simply can’t replace that type of experience, let alone the high level play that the five of them produce. The cherry on top is that they all play different games that can accentuate each other at a high level.
Those three seniors are all highly skilled across the board but have three distinct areas where they shine with Nataley Armstrong‘s passing, Faith Owen‘s shooting and Morgan Ostrowski’s interior presence that is extending out.
“It feels like a rebuild,” Garrett coach Bob Lapadot says of the trio’s tenure. Just before the three came in at Garrett, the Railroaders suffered their first losing season in over 20 years and the first losing season under Lapadot as head coach. Since they came in, the team has won 49 games.
“For those three kids to step in and really right smack dab into starting roles for the most part, is hard. They had their struggles but they’ve had a lot more ups than downs and now we feel like now is when we really reap the benefits. The leadership from them, the maturity and the understanding of everything, how to make it through a three and a half month grind is priceless from a coaching standpoint.”
Ostrowski has drawn high praise from just about everyone since last season ended. Not only has she spent the summer in dual travel ball roles with basketball and volleyball, she has continued to diversify herself on the basketball court. She can guard 1-5, which is fantastic as a true post in the eyes of most. She is a double double threat every night, averaging 10.7 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. Owen is a knock down shooter and showed it with a game of seven three pointers last postseason. Armstrong was ranked amongst the best in assists per game in the country for much of last season; she finished with 7.8 assists per game.
“The crossover is there. You are going to see Faith play the point some this year, you are going to see Nataley play the shooting guard some and you’ll continue to see Morgan play inside-out,” Lapadot said. “The crossover is nice but those God given skills are really unique and they get the most out of them.”
Another player in that senior class that joined the program last season is Taylor Gerke. She gave Garrett 11 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.6 steals per game last year. Her insertion to the lineup helped make Garrett that much better, a true missing piece. She was able to integrate herself quickly as she had played AAU and other levels with many of the Garrett players since they were in elementary school.
Rounding out the starting five is junior Bailey Kelham, who has shown herself to be one of the best scorers in the area the past two seasons. Kelham was one of the NECC’s top scorers at 16.7 points per game and is inching towards 1,000 career points, which should happen fairly early in her junior season. Even though she isn’t going to take many by surprise at this point, Kelham has been able to handle the variety of defenses that teams have started to throw at her. She is handling the ball well, shooting well and Lapadot says they are challenging her to become a first class ball handler this season. He says that they don’t run a specific play for Kelham, she just works hard to get herself through the offensive movement.
While we always, rightfully, look at Garrett’s top five there will be more depth this year than the Railroaders have had during this group’s already historic run.
Lapadot looks to the summer had by McKenna Malcolm as an immediate indicator that the Railroaders can be deeper in 2021-22. Defensively, Malcolm will be a nice piece that can weave into the offense.
Abby Weaver will be critical for Garrett in the post. Especially as Ostrowski roams a bit more, it will be Weaver who could really see a big impact as she is playing more aggressive than ever. The senior appeared in 21 games last season and Lapadot says she is getting much more comfortable. Fellow seniors Kaitlyn Bergman, Halle Hathaway and Sophia Ruble are all excited to fight for time in their final season as well, Lapadot said.
Ruble comes back after missing last season with an injury.
“I am really excited to see these seniors that are really hungry battle everyday in practice to get into that rotation,” Lapadot said. “Obviously you hope you don’t have to use a bunch of depth. But when you do, as we found out in the Sectional, it is very important for them to be ready.”
This is one that will give the SAC purists heartache. But Garrett has, top to bottom, the strongest returning top five players in the area. That is what boosts Garrett towards the top. The fact that they have more of a bench this season than they have in the last three seasons pushes them over the top.
Depth always helps, even if those girls really are just starting to get their feet wet.
In terms of the first five though, this group is tough. On top of that, they all compliment each other with their styles. There is overlapping, but at the end of the day they can all chip in so uniquely that they are not getting in each others way.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
It doesn’t go higher. And while the battle for the top spot was a three team race this preseason, the stacked returning core of the Garrett team gives them the boost for now.
November 23 at Angola
This is by far the best rivalry in the NECC and even this early season meeting could go a long way in deciding the conference’s champion. Garrett has a chip or two on their shoulder in this one after how last season went. Again, the Railroaders will be the favorite, but instead of avoiding letdown, we think the Railroaders will be fully dialed in.
Expect fire works because a lot of bets are off in rivalry games. While Garrett may have tougher games before and after this one, what else matters if they can’t topple Angola.
Rinse and repeat for if they end up facing the Hornets again in the NECC Tournament and again in the postseason.
Faith Owen, senior
When 3/5 of this starting five were starting late in their freshmen year, it was Owen that was illuminating as the best of the bunch. Now fully complimented with the pieces around her, Owen looked more calm and composed last year. There wasn’t as much stress and their wasn’t as much on her plate.
It allowed Owen the freedom to find her shots, move without the ball well and knock down big threes in critical moments.
A calm, cool and collected Owen is a major piece for Garrett.