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Patriot's Caitlin Blackman sprints up court against Battlefield during the teams' contest on Friday, January 17, 2020.

Early into Patriot’s game Jan. 11 against Unity Reed, Elena Bertrand noticed a sure-fire opportunity for teammate Caitlin Blackman.

If Blackman stayed just beyond the 3-point line, Bertrand planned to penetrate toward the basket and then pass the ball back out to Blackman. Bertrand shared her strategy during a timeout and everyone let it unfold.

“I can get to the middle,” Bertrand told Blackman. “You be ready to catch it.”

Blackman obliged and proceeded to sink the first two of her eventual six 3-pointers in Patriot’s 54-33 victory.

The sequence underscored why a Blackman-Bertrand combo makes the Pioneers a formidable opponent this season as Patriot looks to claim the program’s first-ever district title and only second winning record since the school opened in 2011.

“They complement each other,” said Patriot sixth year head coach Antoinette Wadsworth. “They are so connected. They know where each other is on the court.”

Blackman is a four-year varsity starter, while Bertrand is a three-year varsity starter. Both have elevated their level of play to help Patriot (6-0, 6-2) win six straight after starting off the season 0-2 following losses to the Cardinal District’s top two teams: Colgan (67-49) and Forest Park (66-63 in double overtime).

After converting 24 3-pointers in 26 games last season, Blackman has showcased an improved outside shooting touch this season with 23 in eight games. Overall, Blackman is averaging a team-high 17.1 points and 3.1 steals along with 6.5 rebounds a game.

Wadsworth said Blackman has always possessed the ability to shoot well from the 3-point line. She needed to develop more of a rhythm to help her confidence.

Wadsworth also credits Blackman’s surge to feeling relief from choosing a college instead of still wondering where she might go. Blackman has signed with Division III Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

“There’s just not that pressure,” said Wadsworth, a former Division I player at Oklahoma. “It’s a different feeling knowing you where you are doing.”

Bertrand, meanwhile, is thriving for the opposite reason in averaging 16 points a game and a team-high 4.1 assists a game.

“She wants to compete at the next level since this is her junior year,” Wadsworth said.

Blackman and Bertrand are the only returning starters from last season, but Patriot has received boosts from other players, in particular freshman Ella Negron.

Negron, the younger sister of former Patriot standout and current James Madison University football player Tyler Negron, gives the Pioneers a presence in the post, one that belies her quiet nature. She is averaging a team-high 7.9 rebounds along with 8.1 points (third on the team).

“There’s no way she’s intimidated,” Wadsworth said. “She has an energy that says ‘This is my space.’ ”

Patriot’s biggest win so far this season was its 44-36 victory Jan. 13 over Osbourn Park.

The Yellow Jackets entered the game undefeated and winners of nine straight over the Pioneers. Patriot last beat Osbourn Park Dec. 16, 2016.

Wadsworth understands the road to the district title goes through Osbourn Park, winners of the last three district regular-season titles. The two meet again Jan. 27.

But Pioneer is on the right path toward fulfilling its goal.

“It was a big win obviously with Osbourn Park’s track record,” Wadsworth said. “But it also reinforced for the girls what the coaches have been saying to them. It was a test for us. I was proud of our effort, especially our defensive strategy.”

David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa.com. Reach him at dfawcett@insidenova.com

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