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Youngstown State commit Gregory shining in final season at West Branch

Gregory shining in final season at West Branch

Staff file photo / Brian Yauger West Branch’s Sophie Gregory boxes out during a game against Howland earlier this season.

BELOIT — Every West Branch girls varsity basketball practice, players from the middle school teams attend practice to help the coaches.

While the players are running drills on the court, the younger players watch them at work. They get to see firsthand what they’ll soon be doing themselves, as the future of the program.

It’s all part of fostering continuity in the community basketball culture that the Warriors have built over the years under head coach Walt DeShields.

West Branch senior Sophie Gregory was once in the same position those girls are in, and she’s become a mainstay for the Warriors since she first began her high school basketball career.

“When she first came up as a freshman, she did things with the basketball in the full court and halfcourt that we as a staff said, that’s our point guard,” DeShields said. “We all kind of knew that somebody that’s 6-foot-2 isn’t a natural point guard, but Magic Johnson was 6-foot-8. You’re starting to see that a little bit more with the taller point guards.

“But she’s just a talented athlete. She handles the ball well, sees the floor well and is extremely fast. … The things she does with the ball is sometimes just incredible to watch.”

After averaging 15.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists during an injury-shortened junior campaign last year, Gregory has been even better this season with West Branch’s resurgence as one of the best teams in the area.

“It was really hard; it was tough watching them not get to where they wanted to be exactly,” Gregory said of missing most of the first half of the season last year. “But I had faith in them the whole time, it was just a matter of time. Being back, I’ve just tried to help the team.”

She’s averaging about 16 points, 8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game this season for a Warriors team that sits at 20-2 and opens the Division II playoffs Wednesday against Akron Coventry.

Gregory recently became the 12th player in West Branch history to eclipse the 1,000-point milestone, and she leads this year’s team in every major statistical category, including steals and blocks.

“It feels so good just knowing that my team and my community was behind me supporting me,” Gregory said. “It made me feel good knowing that they were all there. It was just reassurance, not necessarily the achievement itself, but reassurance knowing that everyone’s there supporting me and that I can continue to do what I do with my team.”

She realized her dream of excelling for West Branch’s varsity team, but now Gregory is also on the cusp of something more — playing college basketball at the Division I level.

She’ll be following in the footsteps of former West Branch star Melinda Trimmer by playing for and attending Youngstown State this fall.

“With Sophie, she’s grown every year, but she’s still young. She won’t be 18 till she gets to college, so her best basketball is still ahead of her,” DeShields said. “YSU got a good one. She’s definitely a Division I player. She’s going to help them. She’s an unselfish player — sometimes we have to tell her to shoot the ball. This is what makes her special — she’s just as happy when her teammates score. When you get a player like that, they just make everybody else around you better and she makes her teammates better.”

Gregory first got on YSU’s radar when DeShields first reached out to former YSU head coach John Barnes about a player coming up through the ranks at West Branch.

The Penguins coaching staff already had a connection with DeShields and the Warriors program after recruiting Trimmer to YSU.

“He let us know about her, and it just so happened that the highlight video he sent had her jumping up and grabbing the rim. So that obviously caught our attention pretty quick,” YSU interim head coach John Nicolais said. “That’s how it originally started, and then she came to some basketball camps, as well.”

With her size, length, athleticism, finishing ability near the basket and defensive prowess, Gregory fits in seamlessly to YSU’s system, and it starts with her versatility.

Nicolais said that with her skillset, Gregory has the ability to potentially play three different positions for the Penguins.

“We could put her at the top of the press, you can put her at the top of the zone — she can play multiple positions,” Nicolais said. “She’s quick enough to guard guards and she’s tall enough to guard inside. Then offensively, she can score down inside. She’s got great feet, she’s got soft hands, and she can be on the perimeter and take people off the dribble. Her ability to be versatile and do a multitude of things is going to allow her to play as many minutes as she can stand on the floor.”

YSU has a sizable outgoing class of six fifth-year seniors that will be finishing out their college careers in the coming weeks, so Gregory may have a chance to make a splash right away as an incoming freshman.

But overall, she’s just anxious to get started and do whatever the Penguins need of her.

“I’m hoping to make a big difference next year, even if it’s just in practice. I’m fine with that,” Gregory said. “(I want to) help make the other players better. I know that they struggled a bit this year with all the adversity, and I understand that because our team went through that. But hopefully (I can) make an impact, even just at practice, at least.”

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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