MORGANTOWN — During her freshman season at Morgantown High, girls’ basketball player Aleena McDaniel watched as the older players on the Mohigans claimed their second-straight state championship. The next season, as a new addition toward the end of the season, she was a part of yet another state title, though playing time was limited.
The rosters were jam-packed with upperclassmen, so the lineup was hard to crack during McDaniel’s sophomore year. But even as a junior, it didn’t come much easier. While the 2017 edition of the MHS girls’ basketball team didn’t make it to the state tournament, there were still eight seniors, which kept McDaniel as a J.V. starter and role player on varsity.
Now, McDaniel is a starting guard as a senior, and has helped the Mohigans to a top five ranking and 9-4 record, when many thought they would struggle to replace the ’17 class.
“It was such an honor being behind those two classes of seniors because they were able to teach me a lot about the game and how hard you need to work to be successful,” she said. “Going into this year, I knew we were going to be a young team because we only had a few girls coming back on the varsity. We seniors took every moment and learned from it the past few years. When it became our turn, we felt ready.”
McDaniel is joined by fellow seniors Aliyssa Neal and Molly Miller, a far cry from the size of the last couple classes.
There are seven listed juniors on the MHS roster, followed by 11 freshmen. There are no sophomores listed.
With such a young team and McDaniel being one of the few who have been through the grind of an entire varsity season, she took bits and pieces from what she learned going through the system. Team chemistry was the biggest factor during the three-peat, and that’s something she sees with this group.
“Having such a young team, we knew we had to work hard and work together as a team,” McDaniel said. “Our team chemistry has been a huge part in our success during the season because we always have each other’s backs and pick each other up when we make a mistake or are having an off game.”
When breaking every huddle, the Mohigans shout “FAM,” a reminder that they’re in this together. Head coach Jason White has prided his program on that mantra, but FAM has always been a part of McDaniel’s basketball career.
Since she could crawl, McDaniel has handled a basketball, thanks in large part to her brother, Calvin.
As the little sister, Aleena wanted to do everything Calvin did, and basketball was something that became more than just copying big brother.
“My brother was the one that introduced me to the game, and I immediately fell in love,” Aleena said. “I always looked up to him and wanted to do everything he did, so I started playing basketball and never stopped. It’s a lifestyle for me and has been my whole life. Throughout the years, I was able to learn about the game and how it’s played.”
Playing against her brother, McDaniel became a competitive person and worked her way through rec leagues, travel leagues and AAU. She played for Suncrest Middle before moving on to MHS.
In high school, McDaniel also joined the track team and helped the Mohigans win the Class AAA girls’ championship last year. She also won a state title in the 4×800 relay.
But basketball is her first love, and her work ethic proves that.
“It’s a testament to her development and willingness to work hard,” White said. “It’s an uncommon trait now for kids to be willing to bide their time and wait for their shot. We live in a time of instant gratification, and a kid not willing to work hard if the playing time isn’t there.
“Aleena, on the other hand, is the first kid in the gym and the last to leave. I couldn’t be more proud of her and she’s getting the most out of her opportunity.”
White said McDaniel improved in every facet of the game the last three years, including ball-handling, shooting, decision-making and court awareness.
Her presence is “one reason we’re where we are now, and she is going to be critical for us to continue to get back to a championship-caliber team, which I believe we can be,” White said.
McDaniel and the Mohigans next host Wheeling Park, at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 24.