A Trip Back in Time…

When I drive to Wyoming County, I feel like I’m taking a trip back in time.

No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the county or any other part of Southern West Virginia. In fact, I mean it as a compliment because it is something that I love so much. It’s so thoroughly West Virginia.

Welcome to Boone County (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

I make my home in Boone County. In fact, I chose to make it here, and I love it. (I’m a transplant, so no I don’t know Jesco White. Thanks for not ever asking me that.) One of the interesting aspects of Boone County, at least to me, is that some parts of the county are remote and isolated while others are more like a suburb. I live in Madison (West Madison, to be more exact, a few blocks from the school), and I’m only about 20-25 minutes from the Southridge section of Charleston. While some folks in other parts of the county hardly have access to a decent grocery store, I can pretty quickly be to just about any major chain restaurant or retailer I want. (God bless Corridor G.)

I’m not headed to Charleston on this night, though. My destination is Wyoming East High School for a basketball game. I count four reasonable ways to get from my house to the school, and none of them are any good. I could go over and hit the Turnpike down to Beckley, then slip down to Mullins and over to the school, but that is making a big, unnecessary circle. I could go down to Logan and hit Rt. 10. Some people like this way because for some reason they believe Rt. 10 is a better road than the others, but really it’s not. (Once that 4-lane gets completed, though, this may be a different story. We West Virginians are always waiting on a 4-lane to get finished, aren’t we?) The other two routes involve taking Rt. 85 to the county line and then either going up through Bolt and then down to the school or dropping down through Oceana and over. I’m headed through Oceana tonight.

I push off from Madison in my Toyota Tacoma and head south on Rt. 85 to make the 63 mile, 1 hour and 45 minute drive. (That’s some WV math for you. Miles are meaningless in relation to time.) My first stop is at the edge of the Scott district in a little community called Uneeda, home of the world, or at least county, famous Uneeda Lemonade. (Get it? Get it?) I’m stopping at a combined gas station, pharmacy, and restaurant. Could a pharmacy make it on its own in Uneeda? Probably not. Could a restaurant? Doubtful. But put those two together with some gas pumps outside, and you have a thriving store. I get a couple of hot dogs (with chili and slaw, of course), and I’m on my way.

Herschel Jerrell Field at Van High School (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

Before long, I’m in Van. Though it’s only about 12 miles away, for many people in Madison, it might as well be 40 miles. Van is pretty isolated, and I’ve already said goodbye to cell service for a while. You pass the store, go across the bridge, and then the school is up on the hill to the right. Van is one of three high schools in the county alongside Scott and Sherman. It seems like Boone County has had three, and only three, high schools pretty much forever. Attendance at Van is down. The school is now one of the five smallest public schools in the state and barely has more than 100 students in grades 9-12. The area is extremely dependent on coal mining, and there’s not a whole lot of that activity going on right now. When coal is down, budgets tighten, and people are increasingly worried that Van will fall victim to a budget cut. The community loves it’s school, though, and Van won’t go down without a fight. There are no current plans to close Van, and it’s currently one of the last single A schools still holding out in Southern WV. I hope it stays open forever. I snake through Van, pass Giovanni’s and the auction, and keep heading south.

The road winds through the mountains. Those who have driven through the Coalfields know that the concept of a field really doesn’t exist here, outside of the ones where they play football and baseball. There’s a mountain, a road, a row of houses, a river or stream, railroad tracks, and then another mountain. If wide-open spaces are what you’re looking for, then this surely isn’t the place for you.

They Have a Little Baseball Tradition at Van (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

After 10 or so miles, I come upon the community of Wharton. Here, you’ll find a crumbling elementary school that has a shiny new gym of which tons of middle schools and even a couple high schools would be jealous. (The gym was paid for by a coal company. When coal times are good, there’s often great benefit in the community.)  Wharton is also home to the Van High School Baseball Complex. State Champions: 1982, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. I’ve heard stories from people far and wide who came all the way to Wharton just to get mowed down by the Bulldogs. I’d love to have seen one of those great ‘80s and ‘90s teams play here. The last time Van was in the title game was 2004, when they lost a 10-inning heartbreaker. The last few years, the Bulldogs have had to struggle just to get enough boys to field a team.

Once you get south of Wharton, there’s not all that many signs of life. You pass a few massive coal productions. There’s a whole lot of coal sitting on the ground, which isn’t a great sign. That just means they probably don’t need to get much more out of the ground right now. You can also make great time through this stretch. You just have to watch, because occasionally you’ll come upon a pothole big enough to swallow your whole vehicle.

Gorgeous View at the Boone/Raleigh/Wyoming County Line (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

When you get to the top of the mountain at the county line, if you look off to your right, you will see a gorgeous view that ranks right up there with the best in the state. It might just be my favorite. (You’ll have to ignore some of the trash that’s inevitably on the ground there. Oh, Southern WV.) If you take a left, you literally drive through the mountain and head towards Bolt and eventually Beckley. This is the preferred route from Madison to Beckley for those who aren’t afraid of driving a road with some curves. I head straight, though, and come down off the mountain and into Wyoming County.

Once you get all the way down off the mountain, you drop into Oceana. There are many nights that I’ll be taking a right to go down through Oceana to Westside High School in Clear Fork. I’m headed for the eastern side of the county tonight, though, so after a quick stop at the famous (for what I’m not exactly sure) Oceana McDonalds, I take a left on to Rt. 10.

A Coal Truck Turns to Head Toward Bolt (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

On the way out of town, you pass the old Oceana High School. Oh, there’s some history in this school. Three-time AA boys’ basketball state champions. Four more trips to the title game. Bunches of trips to the state tournament. Growing up far away from here in the Eastern Panhandle, Oceana was always one of my favorite teams to watch at the state tournament. So many fans and supporters always came to watch, cheering and chanting in that Southern WV accent. Oceana is part of the reason I fell in love with Coalfield basketball long before I ever visited the region. Though the school is no longer in operation, there’s no question the spirit and tradition of Oceana basketball lives on at Westside. I would have loved to watch a game here.

(To bring the story full circle, Romney High School, the now defunct school in the town where I was raised, defeated Oceana in the 1960 AA basketball state championship. This is the only basketball state championship in Hampshire County history one of only two team state championships. Somewhere, there’s an old guy in Oceana talking about that time they lost to the great Bill Maphis, who went on to play at WVU.)

Driving by (and under) a mining operation like this is quite common in Southern West Virginia (Photo Courtesy of Jack Withrow)

The next place of note that Rt. 10 takes me is Pineville, the seat of Wyoming County, where a beautiful courthouse sits majestically up on a hill overlooking the town. Perhaps the town’s biggest claim to fame, and certainly its biggest athletic claim, is football great Curt Warner. (No, not the grocery bagging, Super Bowl winning QB. That’s Kurt.) Warner won the Kennedy Award as the state’s top football player in 1978 after rushing for about a million yards his senior year. Many wrote him off since he came from such a small school playing against other small schools, but then he went on to lead Penn State in rushing for three seasons, was twice named an all-American, won a national championship, and had an 8-year career in the NFL. I would have loved to see him play in Pineville. The school still sits right in the heart of town, but the kids now attend Wyoming East.

I continue out of town on Rt. 10. (The road has merged with Rt. 16 at this point.) This time, my trip will end just short of Mullens. That town takes a back seat to no one when it comes to basketball tradition. The Rebels won 7 boys state championships, with the last of those coming in the school’s final season before consolidation in 1998. (Wyoming County teams had a flair for making a great state tournament run in the final year of the school. Mullens, Oceana, and Herndon all did it.) The most famous Mullens player would probably have to be Herbie Brooks (with great apologies to Willie Akers and others). Herbie’s 50 points against Parkersburg Catholic in the 1983 state tournament, is possibly the most iconic record and moment in the storied history of the tournament. Conley High School, an all-black school in Mullens, won the 1963 “A” title before integration, giving Mullens an added piece of hoops history and tradition. I’m told that all the banners still hang in the Mullens gym, even one commemorating “50.” (You don’t even have to say Herbie Brooks’ name. Just say the number “50” and most state basketball fans know exactly what you mean.) Consolidation has been more than 15 years ago now, but this tradition will never go away; it’s just combined with others now in Wyoming East. Oh, to have seen one of those great games at Mullens.

Anyway, I stop before I get to Mullens at the school in a community named New Richmond. New Richmond is really little more than a string of houses alongside the road. It’s roughly half way between Mullens and Pineville, and they found a wide spot big enough to build the school there. One of the great tragedies of consolidation is that the new schools are rarely built in town. I understand why they aren’t (combination of splitting distance and finding a place big enough to build), but it’s still a shame. There’s something so charming about a school being right in town, serving as the lifeblood of the community.

Wyoming East has been one of the state’s signature AA basketball programs since it opened for the 1998-99 season. (It’s one of the rare instances in the state when you thought a consolidation was going to produce great athletics and it actually did work out that way.) East has state titles in 2002, ’07, and ’08, title game losses in ’09 and ’10, and a few other tourney appearances. They would undoubtedly have more deep state tournament runs if it weren’t for some years when the school just down the road in Clear Fork knocked them off to claim county supremacy.

That Wyoming East and Westside rivalry is called the best in the state by many. I am one of those people. I have seen a bunch of games in a bunch of parts of the state, and with respects to the likes of Martinsburg/Hedgesville, Woodrow Wilson/Greenbrier East, etc., I’ve never seen it mean more to a community than it does in Wyoming County. It’s really the perfect storm. There are only two high schools in the county, and they are nearly identical. Each of the districts has one of the two biggest towns/population bases, and the schools are very similar in size. Each had a school going into it that had an outstanding basketball tradition. Heck, the actual physical schools are even almost identical, to the point where someone who is color blind could forget which school they were in. Both have really cool display cases honoring the storied traditions of the schools that combined to form them. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot else going on in Wyoming County. I’m quite familiar with the basketball rivalries in the Eastern Panhandle, and while they are wild for that night, people who live there have any number of things to do the next day. In Wyoming County, athletics, and particularly basketball, plays much more of a central role in the lives of its residents, even if it East vs. Westside now instead of Mullens vs. Oceana. That makes Wyoming County my type of place.

Wyoming County Goes Wild When the Warriors and Renegades Meet
Wyoming County Goes Wild When the Warriors and Renegades Meet (Photo Courtesy of Mountain State Prep Hoops)

On this particular night, Wyoming East is playing the Scott Skyhawks. The boys from Madison likely took the same route I did to New Richmond, though they likely failed to appreciate it the same way I did. The visitors came away with the win, dropping the home standing Warriors to 0-2 on the season. Some of the natives are getting a little restless. A few leave the game early when they realize East’s fate in the game is sealed. I hear some others talking after the game filled with concern about the way the Warriors have started the season. This is very unfamiliar territory for those on the Eastern side of the county (and really the Western side too). East is young, starting 5 underclassmen. They’re talented, too, in need only of a few games to get going. They won’t be down for long. They never are in Wyoming County. Hasn’t history at least taught us that much?

When the game concludes, I head for home, only to make a trip back to the county within a couple weeks, I’m sure. Maybe next time I’ll take that right on to Rt. 10 and head towards Clear Fork. This drive is so unique, only it really isn’t. There are any number of these Coalfield roads that could take me back in time just as this one did, like Rt. 3 or Rt. 52. These roads would take me to places like Northfork, Harts Creek, and Williamson. Places where the great West Virginia traditions fade, but they never disappear.

(Photos Courtesy of Jack Withrow unless otherwise noted. If you have any photos relevant to this story that you would like to share, you can mail them to mountainstateprephoops@yahoo.com.)

Hurricane 70–Winfield 49 12/13/14

Hurricane started the season strong with a 70-49 victory over county rival Winfield on Saturday night. J.T. Rogoszewski led all scorers with 22 points, with Trey Dawson adding 19 and Brandon Ford 11 for Hurricane. Bear Bellomy scored 15 to pace Winfield, and Tate Hancock and Heath Diehl joined him in double figures with 11 and 10, respectively.

Hurricane started the game by quickly pushing the lead out close to double figures, and the lead would stay there for essentially the rest of the evening. Bellomy really struggled shooting the ball in the first half, scoring just three points without making a field goal. Combine Bellomy’s early struggles with the team’s struggles in handling Hurricane’s full court and half court pressure, and the Generals just couldn’t get going offensively and trailed 31-18 at the half. Dawson and Rogoszewski then took over the game in the second half. Dawson scored 8 in the third quarter and was in complete control at the point, and Rogoszewski scored 11 in the final period to put it on ice.

I was really impressed with this Hurricane team and they way they came out of the gates. Dawson and Rogoszewski proved last season that they are two of the best players in the state, and they looked even better tonight than they did last year. Dawson’s ball handling, shooting, and passing ability make him so dangerous on offense, and he is an absolute menace on defense. Rogoszewski’s athleticism also helps the Hurricane defense, and he seems impossible to keep out of the lane when he catches on the wing or at the top of the key. Ford and Dylan Tinsley are also very capable scorers and defenders. Freshman Nick Muto looked good in his first varsity game, and Noah Fenerty gave them good minutes off the bench.

Winfield has a few issues to fix, but I still think this team will win a lot of games. Right now, they’re a little too dependent on Bellomy on the offensive end. If he isn’t scoring 25+, then they struggle to score as a team. Alex Osburn had a rough evening (5 points), but I believe he will be a very consistent second option throughout the season. The Generals also just need better guard play in general to take care of the ball and not turn it over against pressure. It’s still the first week of the season, though, and many games are ugly with bunches to turnovers at this time of year. Once the guards settle in to the season and get used to the pressure, I think they, and the rest of the Winfield squad, will be just fine.

FCA Hoops Classic and Big 10/Cardinal Conference Showdown

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes will be hosting the 15th annual West Virginia Hoops Classic on December 19th and 20th. Much like last year, the Hoops Classic will feature one day of boys and girls matchups, and a second day will serve as the boys’ Big 10/Cardinal Conference showdown. The games on Friday will be held as usual at the Charleston Civic Center, but the Big 10/Cardinal games on Saturday will be moved to the beautiful, new Walker Convocation Center on the campus of West Virginia State University due to a schedule conflict with the WVU and Marshall women’s game.

The field for the two days is stellar. Friday will feature 3 girls’ state tournament teams from a year ago and 2 on the boys’ side. The Big 10 and Cardinal teams last year combined to grab 6 of the 8 AA boys’ state tournament spots, and we could see just as many coming from those two conferences again this year. At least the top three matchups on that day will be fantastic. Here is the lineup:

Friday, December 19 at Charleston Civic Center

9:00 am    Elk Valley Christian vs. Wood County Christian           Girls

10:30 am   Elk Valley Christian vs. Wood County Christian           Boys

12:00 pm   Summers County vs. Clay County                               Girls

1:30 pm     Sissonville vs. Charleston Catholic                              Girls

3:30 pm     Nitro vs. Point Pleasant                                               Boys

5:00 pm     Wheeling Park vs. Riverside                                       Boys

6:30 pm     Parkersburg South vs. Brooke                                    Boys

8:00 pm     South Charleston vs. Oak Hill                                      Boys

Saturday, December 20 at WV State University

8:00 am    Lincoln County vs. Liberty (Harrison)

9:30 am    Philip Barbour vs. Tolsia

11:00 am  North Marion vs. Wayne

12:30 pm  East Fairmont vs. Herbert Hoover

2:00 pm    Lincoln vs. Sissonville

3:30 pm    Scott vs. Grafton

5:00 pm    Fairmont Senior vs. Chapmanville

6:30 pm    Mingo Central vs. Bridgeport

8:00 pm    Poca vs. Robert C. Byrd

Scott 78–Wyoming East 72 12/12/14

Scott bounced back from a tough opening night loss with a big 78-72 win at Wyoming East.  Kirk Price led 5 Skyhawk scorers in double figures with 19 points. Logan Webb added 14 points, Patrick Underwood and Tanner Bell chipped in 12 apiece, and Eric May scored 10. Logan Blankenship led all scorers with 24 for East, and Alec Lusk added 17.

The game was pretty tight throughout, with East holding the advantage for much of the first three quarters. Blankenship and Lusk broke a tie by hitting three pointers on the last possession of the first quarter and the first possession of the second quarter, respectively, to spark a Warrior run. They pushed the lead briefly into double digits before Scott reeled in the deficit to 38-31 at the half. Scott quickly made up the rest of the deficit early in the second half, and East held a narrow 56-53 margin after three quarters.

The fourth quarter belonged to the Skyhawks. Price took over for much of the quarter, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the period and controlling each possession. Scott put together some consecutive stops, and a three-pointer by Andrew Day (7 points) gave them a 9 point lead with 3:00 to play. East did make a late push to make things interesting, but they never again had the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead.

For the first six quarters of their season, Scott showed promise in stretches. The second half tonight, though, was the first time that they really put together extended stretches of good play. Kirk Price has been excellent running the point through two games, averaging 17.5 ppg and controlling the offense. Underwood also came around in the second half, scoring 10 of his 12 points. If Scott gets this type of play out of those two to go with their size inside, then they can put together a run at a sectional championship. Bell and Day are also giving them good minutes off the bench, which adds another dimension to this team.

Wyoming East can’t be happy with their 0-2 start, especially after losing by 29 points at PikeView on Tuesday. They definitely have some issues to work out, but the good news is that they have plenty of talent. Some of their guys don’t have much varsity experience, but as they gain some, I expect them to improve quite a bit. Blankenship looked really good, and I think he will be a reliable primary scorer for East. Cody Lester and David Carte are both very athletic with good size inside. Lusk looked good and knocked down some shots coming off the bench, and sophomore PG Johnathan Sims shows a lot of promise. The best news for East is they started 4 juniors and a sophomore, and 6 of their top 7 are underclassmen. I expect them to improve a bunch this season, and they will be right in the mix at the end of the season.

Herbert Hoover 72–Nicholas County 63 12/10/14

Herbert Hoover opened up their season on Wednesday night with a 72-63 win over Nicholas County. Brad Grose led the Huskies with 23 points. Matt Justice added 20 and Noah Toops 13. Jacob Grose paced the Grizzlies with 16 and Nick Nutter chipped in 13.

Hoover was in control of this game from the tip and even looked dominant at times. The Huskies led 23-13 after one quarter, and the margin seemed to be in double digits for most of the rest of the game. The lead hopped up close to 20 points as Hoover looked on the verge of blowing the game open for portions of the second and third quarters, but Nicholas County never would go away. They chipped away at the lead until back-to-back threes by Domnick LeRose cut the deficit to just 7 in the middle of the third. The Grizzlies never could draw closer though, as the lead stayed around 10 points for the rest of the game.

The Huskies are much improved. Justice and Toops have both improved a little and are very good shooters that can also slash to the basket a little. Grose makes all the difference in this team, though. He is really tough on the boards and is an excellent finisher inside. When Wesley Berry returns from a broken wrist, Hoover could be really good. I’m not sure they will be good enough to knock off Poca, but they have a great chance to finish second in that section and make it to a regional final.

Nicholas County will probably take a few lumps this year, but they definitely have some promise for the future. I was really impressed with the way they fought back to make this a game when they could have just rolled over and let Hoover run away with it. Their two leading scorers tonight were a sophomore and a freshman, and they have several underclassmen playing big minutes. They should be much better later in the year and have some promise for the next few years.

Westside 64 Scott 61 12/9/14

Westside went on the road and picked up a nice 64-61 win over Scott in the season opener for both teams. Will Fox paced all scorers with 20 points, and Justin Kenneda added 17 for the Renegades. Eric May led Scott with 17 points and Kirk Price chipped in 16.

This was pretty typical early season basketball. Both teams played hard, but neither was particularly sharp on offense (though both had their moments). The game was tight the whole way too, with Westside leading by 1 at the half and 6 at the end of the third quarter. Westside still led by 6 with about 3:30 to play when Scott made a run. The Skyhawks cut the lead to a single point, but May’s shot inside to take the lead with just under 2 minutes to play was rejected by Justin Cogar. The block led directly to a runout bucket by Fox to push the lead back to 3, and Scott would never get any closer.

This was a gritty win for Westside. The Renegades are far away right now from what they will be this season. I believe 4 of their 5 starters played on their semifinal football team and have only been practicing for a little over a week. They looked exhausted for stretches but were able to regroup every time. (I thought Coach Cook used a few timeouts very wisely to help this.) There’s no doubt that Fox, Kenneda, and Cogar are going to be really good players for them this year, but we’ll see how some of the other guys like Larry Cook and Bryce Robinson develop throughout the year. They don’t have much size outside of Cogar, and though he is a great individual rebounder, I still think they will struggle on the boards as a team. I still feel pretty much the same way about this Westside squad as I did when I wrote the season preview.

I feel the same way about Scott, too. The Skyhawks missed a great opportunity to pick up a good win tonight. Westside certainly wasn’t at full strength yet, but Scott just couldn’t quite get ahead of them in the second half. Scott has a pretty brutal schedule this year (Poca x2, Mingo Central x2, Chapmanville x2, Westside x2, Wyoming East, Big Atlantic Classic, etc.), and they needed to not squander a chance to win one of those games. They are talented, but I’m just not quite sure they can reach that upper level of AA teams. They could be a really good team that still ends up with 9 or 10 losses this season. I guess we’ll see how it plays out.

Class AAA Season Preview 2014-15

There’s one final classification left to preview. We took a look at AA and A over the past week, and now it’s time to survey the preseason landscape in AAA before games get started tomorrow

Without a doubt, AAA was the hardest classification for me to figure out, and it wasn’t even close. In fact, I don’t even have my mind made up as I start writing this. I went ahead and named a favorite, top contenders, next level teams, and dark horses as I did in other classes, but I have very little conviction about where I’ve placed them. I don’t see very much difference in many of these teams, and some of those “next level” and “dark horse” teams can definitely win a title, and the “top contenders” are far from locks to make the state tournament. I think these teams are all good, but maybe not great and have some flaws.

I’m sure I’ve missed some teams, and I’ve inevitably missed a few kids that have transferred in or out or that decided not to play this year, but as always, I’ve done my best. Without any further ado:

Favorites

Huntington

I really never considered naming the Highlanders the favorites until a few weeks ago, and I didn’t firmly decide to put them here until…well…until I started writing this. To be clear, I definitely thought Huntington was going to be good, but I was afraid they just lost too much in starters Arick Nicks, Chancelor Wooding, and Nick Tubbs. The more I thought about it, though, I think Huntington will be just about as good as anyone, so why not make the defending champs the favorites until someone knocks them off? Tavian Dunn-Martin exploded during the AAU season, and I expect him to have a monster season and be in contention for state player of the year honors at the end of it. I also look for Anthony Meadows to shine in an increased role, and J.R. Howard will also be a consistent scorer for them. For now, I’ll stick with Huntington until I see a team that I am positive is better. Right now, I have no teams that fit that.

Top Contenders

South Charleston

I had thought the Black Eagles would be the favorites entering this season pretty much from the time last season ended. The main reason is that I didn’t think any other team had a duo better than Brandon Knapper and A.D. Cunningham. I still feel the same about Knapper, who enters the season as probably the favorite to win state player of the year. Unfortunately, Cunningham suffered a significant knee injury in football season. I haven’t heard officially that he is out for the entire year, but considering the injury was late in the season and he has a full ride to Charlotte to play football, I highly doubt we’ll see A.D. on the court this season. (This makes me sad more than anything else. A.D. is probably the most unique players in state and I really loved watching him play.) They also lost Jonah Cosby, who probably would have been their third best player, when he transferred to George Washington this summer. They do have Tamon Scruggs, who I think will become a solid scorer for them this year. In the last decade or so, South Charleston has reloaded better than anyone when they’ve lost talent, and Vic Herbert has already won more than 100 games and made it to the state tournament all five years he’s coached at the school. I want to say they have Knapper and will figure out the rest and be right back in the mix, but I can’t be entirely sure of that.

Morgantown

The Mohigans have a ton of talent. They had a bit of an up-and-down season last year, but they got a bunch of young guys experience and made it to the state tournament. When I went to Nathan Conley’s Next Level Exposure Camp in June, it seemed like every game I watched featured a different Morgantown player getting 18 or 20 points. Kenzie Melko, Zakeem Davis, Steven Solomon, C.J. King, Elvin McNally, and Thomas Selby are just a few of the guys from this deep team that can go out and get you 15+ points on any given night. They have good size and athleticism, and I don’t really see any holes. I’ll be intrigued to see what first year head coach Dave Tallman can do with this squad.

Martinsburg

I wasn’t able to see the Bulldogs last year (but I’ll see them over Christmas this year), but what I heard from several people is that they had another good young group that was a year away. There’s always at least one title contender in the Eastern Panhandle, and it looks like it will again be Martinsburg this year. Junior Jerrel Jones and Sophomore Jessiya Villa are two of the top returners. It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where Martinsburg should be until I see them, but it’s tough with all the teams I’ve seen, too. I think the Bulldogs will be in the mix.

Parkersburg South

I’ve talked to a few coaches that think when all the dust settles the Patriots will be as good as anyone in the state. They lost a lot of their size from a year ago, but they return PG Cody Monroe, who is a tough defender and makes great things happen on offense. J.R. Kerr and Ty Dobson return as double figure scorers on the wings, and I think Garrett Gilkeson is primed for a breakout season. They have great overall size, and I think South will be a force in a very tough region.

Next Level

Hedgesville

Even though they lost star C.J. Burks, the prospects for Hedgesville looked pretty good this year with Daniel Delaware, Marcus Gulledge, and Theo Carter returning. However, I just learned that Delaware, who hit one of the shots of the year to send their semifinal game with Hurricane into overtime, has broken bones in his leg and is likely out for the season. It’s hard to tell exactly where the Eagles will fit in. They’ll still have a shot to make it to Charleston, but their road is much more difficult now.

Woodrow Wilson

Beckley suffered a pretty big blow when Nequan Carrington transferred out of state to a prep school. They will need big seasons from Brent Osborne and Noah Hancock, and they will need their defense to be top notch. They will also need some inexperienced guards to step up after losing both starting guards to graduation. I figure they will need a little time to come around, but Woodrow will still be in the mix to make it to Charleston in a region that seems pretty even.

Capital

I’ll be interested to see how well the Cougars adjust after the graduation of Carrington Morris, who made their offense go last year. Capital should have plenty of talent to fill that void, but it will just be a matter of someone becoming a go-to guy. They did lose a couple of guys that transferred out, but they still have plenty of talent in players like Tyrell Davis and Jordan Kinney. Capital should have a chance of making it back to the state tournament for the first time since 2010, which is the longest drought since the school opened in 1989.

George Washington

GW will be a very different team this year than they have been recently. They have had a stretch of dominant stars in the likes Jon Elmore, Luke Eddy, and Tyquae Goard, but they don’t have any player like that this season. That’s not to say that they don’t have talent, though. Anthony Dean was a solid double-figures scorer as a freshman last year, and I’ll be interested to see how he progresses now that he will likely be the focal point of their offense. Jonah Cosby transferring over from South Charleston will give them a lift, and some of their good freshman class might crack the rotation this year. I think the Patriots will be down a little bit this year, but the region is still somewhat open for them to make a run.

Hurricane

Hurricane lost 4 starters off last year’s finalist and has some holes to fill. They do, however, return two excellent players in Trey Dawson and J.T. Rogoszewski. Those two are enough to win them several games and get them in the mix for a third consecutive trip to Charleston, but how well the players around them step up will determine what this team’s ceiling will truly be.

Dark Horses

Wheeling Park

I considered putting Park in the “top contenders,” “next level,” and even as the favorites at different points in time, so I came around to decide that “dark horse” is probably the best spot for them. They have a lot of talent, especially now that junior big man Phil Bledsoe is back at the school after briefly attending a school in Ohio. Ryan Reinbeau is an excellent scorer if he is back to full strength after a knee injury. Toddy Goodwin is good at the point, and I look for Elijah Bell to step in and have a big year. Their depth is a concern now that Chalmer Moffett and Savion Johnson are out with injuries and Trenton Smith transferred to Wheeling Central. I think it’s possible that Park can be state championship good, but it’s also possible that they will be only the third or fourth best team in their tough region.

Parkersburg

Much like Morgantown, it seems like every game I watched at the Exposure Camp in June had a guy from Parkersburg filling it up. With the likes of Ja’Darien Wade, Jordan Colebank, and Michael Ramsey, the Big Reds will certainly not be lacking in talent this year. They were a little up and down a year ago, but they were really good at home, even knocking off Huntington. I don’t know if they’re good enough to make it to Charleston, but they will definitely make some noise in that section and region.

Jefferson

People keep telling me to look out for Jefferson. The Cougars have some really good young talent this year, and especially now that it looks like Hedgesville will be without Delaware, they will have a pretty good shot to make it back to Charleston for the first time since 2007. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this was the last season before Washington was built and the school split.) Jefferson could be looking at a tourney run this season and is possibly a year away from being in the mix for a championship.

Logan

I think the Wildcats will bounce back this season after struggling for the last two. Sophomore Braxton Goff has the potential to become a really nice player, and senior Zac Acord looked really good when I saw him play in the offseason. Kareem Clansy and Khalil Murphy both showed some promise last season. They also have a couple new faces in the mix, and I think they will have a good shot to grab that second spot in the state tournament alongside Huntington in region 4.

Other Teams of Note

Ripley has a nice collection of young talent. I think they’re probably a year away from really being a threat in that region, but they’ll be a few teams this year that you won’t think they should.

Spring Mills predictably struggled a year ago in the first year of the school, but they had some talent, and they also had no seniors in the entire school. I’ve also heard that they had a couple nice players transfer in and could be a big factor in the Panhandle.

It’s easy to forget that Spring Valley was one point away from knocking off Hurricane and making a trip to the state tournament last year. They should be a factor in that region again this year led by the likes of Jacob Kilgore.

Winfield doesn’t have a bunch of depth, but they have one of the most underrated players in the state in Bear Bellomy, who can go out and get 30 on any given night.

Riverside won’t easily replace Tyus Wood, but they have two really talented players in Tamar Lawson and Josh Carpenter. They could be good enough to scare some people in region 3.

Class AA Season Preview 2014-15

The season is about to tip off this week, so it’s time to preview another classification. I took a look at Class A a few days ago, so now it’s time to move on to AA.

As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be declaring my preseason championship favorite, the teams I view as the top contenders, the teams I believe are very good but maybe a level below the top contenders, some dark horses that I believe could be a very good or surprise team or about which there is more unknown. (Dark horse teams aren’t necessarily any better or worse than the teams above them, just more unknown or questions.) Then, I’ll briefly mention a few more teams that are noteworthy.

I’m sure I’ve missed some teams, and I’ve inevitably missed a few kids that have transferred in or out or that decided not to play this year, but as always, I’ve done my best. Without any further ado:

Favorites

Poca

I could be talked into two or three other teams in this spot, but I’m going with the Dots here. They return most of the key pieces from last year’s semifinalist, including seniors Noah Frampton and Matt Chandler and sophomores Luke Frampton and Elijah Cuffee. A year ago, their only regular season loss was to RCB early in the season when Luke Frampton and Cuffee had only played a few games, and by tourney time, I thought Poca was a little bit better than Byrd. They were certainly able to give Bluefield a tougher game in the tourney (though I think that had more to do with matchups and style than which team was actually better). All four of those players mentioned above are legitimate 14-16 ppg scorers. Christian Buckley will give them a good presence inside, and Kaden Meeks has some experience and will probably be the sixth man. I really only have two concerns for Poca. The first is depth, which bit them a little last year as well. They will need some young kids to come around and give them some minutes. The other is size. They have good team size, but they don’t have a lot of individual height. This could be an issue when matching up with teams like Mingo Central, Chapmanville and even RCB and Bridgeport.  When it really gets down to what team I would pick to make my favorite, though, I trust Poca’s ability to defend more than I trust any one aspect of any other team. That’s why I see the Dots as the preseason favorites.

Top Contenders

Robert C. Byrd

Much like Poca, you likely already know the story on Robert C. Byrd. They return pretty much everyone except for starter Kevin Steele. I don’t foresee losing him having that much of an effect, though, because RCB has good guards everywhere you look. Devonti Birch is one of the best players in AA with great strength, athleticism, and scoring ability. Luke Dyer might be the best shooter in all of AA. Justin Noble is a stud inside, and Cameron Carvelli is solid at the point. RCB, of course, was undefeated to the state championship game last year before Bluefield ran away with the title. There’s no reason to think they can’t get right back to that title game again this year, though the competition in AA, as usual, will be very tough.

Mingo Central

The Miners are loaded with talent. I’m not sure how else to put it. I know that some of you reading this just rolled your eyes and mumbled “Yeah, I’ve heard that before.” I understand, but hear me out. Last year, Mingo Central had an odd season. They had some good players even before Dikembe Dixson transferred in, but they were really up and down and lost a ton of close games. (I watched them score in the 80s against Scott and then a few weeks later not make it out of the 20s against Chapmanville, losing both games.) I think losing all those close games really wore on them and was tough to overcome. Adding a player in the middle of the season and then expecting that player to be the focal point of your offense is not nearly as easy in reality as it is on paper. With that said, if Montrell Dixson has also been eligible, I’m not sure any of that would have mattered. Dikembe is an excellent wing scorer, and Montrell is an athletic freak that is pretty unstoppable on the boards and in the paint. The Miners also added Jusci Thompson at the point, and he will give them even more athleticism and skill. Add in Dalton Hatfield, Mallie May, Stevie Hammond, and others, and Mingo Central is a definite title contender with perhaps the highest ceiling of any team in the state. Keep rolling your eyes if you’d like, but I’m a believer in the Miners. 

Bridgeport

Basketball is alive and well in Harrison County, as I expect Bridgeport to again be among the AA title contenders alongside RCB. They return everyone except for Ryan Sprouse from last year’s tourney team, but they’ve plugged that hole quite well with Nick Greely, who transferred over from East Fairmont this season. I look for John Wilfong, a great scorer, to have another monster year along with Chase Robey, Donald Kummer, Dante Bonamico, Hunter Haddix, etc. The Indians might be a little slow coming out of the gates (though they weren’t last year) because some of their key guys play football, but Bridgeport will be right in the mix come tourney time.

Next Level

Westside

I’m not entirely sure what to do with Westside. (They might even fit better in the “Dark Horse” category than this one.) Westside has some big holes to fill and will need a bunch of young guys to step in and play. I do know one thing for absolute certain, though: Will Fox, Justin Cogar, and Justin Kenneda are an excellent way to start your team. I think Cogar is one of the best and most versatile big men in the state. Fox had maybe the best state tournament of anyone in AA last year (Lykel Collier and Anthony Eades would certainly argue with that), and Kenneda is an outstanding defender that can also knock down shots. When you have three really good players, and they are a point guard, a big man, and a defensive stopper, you’re going to win a lot of games. I’m told that some of those younger players that are stepping in are pretty good, but the team will still lack size outside of Cogar. Just how good those younger guys are this season will determine if the Renegades can be true title contenders again.

Fairmont Senior

The Polar Bears made it to Charleston a year ago and didn’t have a single senior on the roster. In their youth, they were predictably a little up and down last season. They nearly knocked off RCB in a regular season, multiple-OT thriller, but then they also lost a few games they probably shouldn’t have lost. Darhius Nunn and Tavon Horton both return as double figure scorers at the guard spots from a year ago, and Isaac Childers was solid at forward. I will be very interested to see how much Senior has improved with the experience from a year ago and if they can contend for a championship. (I’ve also heard that Fairmont Senior has a really good freshman class. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, it’ll be interesting to see if any of them can step in and make an impact this year.)

Scott

Scott returns a nucleus of seniors Eric May, Anthony Sigmon, and Logan Webb, all between 6’4” and 6’6”, who have started since they were sophomores. Kirk Price should step in and be solid at the point spot, and junior shooting guard Patrick Underwood could be a big key for the Skyhawks this season. If he can step in and be a 10+ ppg scorer, Scott can do some damage in the Cardinal Conference and their section. They are a solid defensive team, but they just don’t have the same ceiling as some of the teams I’ve mentioned above them. They are a very good team, but we’ll have to wait and see if they can beat some of the title contenders. 

Dark Horses

Bluefield

The Beavers were undeniably the cream of the AA crop over the last three seasons, winning two championships and making it to a third title game. The core of that group is gone now, as 4 of their 5 starters from the last two seasons graduated. It seems unavoidable that Bluefield will take a step back, but the question is just how far back they will go. Many throughout the state assume they won’t be a factor this year, but I’ve talked to some coaches that think they are going to be really good, and I tend to lean that way too. Corey Coppola is the one returning starter, and he is tough inside and a good rebounder and finisher. Jordan Ponder gave them great minutes off the bench last year (and in the starting lineup when Yost was injured), and Jordan Huckleberry is big and athletic and showed a lot of promise. I’m very intrigued to see this team play.

Chapmanville Regional

The Tigers are coming of their first trip to the state tournament in school history (regardless of whether you measure that from before or after they absorbed Harts). It appears that Chapmanville will probably be even better this season. They return leading scorer Josh Butcher, who is an excellent shooter and scorer, and PG Trey Dalton who is solid and has a ton of experience. They added 6’8” transfer Ben Eke, and Drew Williamson (brother of former Logan standout Paul) looks to get some time as a freshman. Without having seen some of those new faces, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where CRHS will be this season. I think that they’re going to end up being no worse than the third best team in the Cardinal Conference behind Central and Poca, and they’ll challenge those two for a second consecutive state tournament appearance.

Wyoming East

East is another team that lost quite a bit from last year’s squad. They will need to find a replacement for four starters, but as usual, they should have the talent to do so. John Morgan and Logan Blankenship are two returners from last year that have some experience in the starting lineup, and if Cody Lester returns, he will give the Warriors a big lift. I think Wyoming East could struggle a little early in the year while some of their new guys gain experience, but they should be right in the mix to return to Charleston after missing out the last two seasons.

Other Teams of Note

Herbert Hoover returns quite a few players that gained good experience last year, and they have a couple new faces from Capital that should help them a bunch. They should be right in the mix for that second spot in a regional final alongside Poca.

I was very impressed with the group of young talent at Grafton when I saw them play last year. They will struggle to get out of their section with RCB and Bridgeport, but they should be one of the better teams in the Big 10 this season. 

Sissonville was extremely young last season, and some of those young kids showed a lot of promise. They’ll be improved this year, but might be a year away from really making noise in a tough Cardinal Conference.

Ravenswood will need to replace Jake Martin as their top scoring option, but I look for the Red Devils to be in the mix for a trip to Charleston out of a region that is wide open outside of Fairmont Senior.

East Fairmont returns Myles Johnson, Philip Vincent, and others from their state tourney team from a year ago, but losing Greely to Bridgeport will be a tough hill to climb for the Bees.

Keyser bounced back last season after a couple down years following their trip to the AA semis in 2011. We’ll see if they can keep that momentum moving forward.

Petersburg has had a pretty good recent run of talent but has been devastated with injuries. They could very well be the top team in their section and host a regional final if they can stay healthy this year.

Liberty (Raleigh) returns just about everyone from last year and could be really sneaky in their section. There will always be the “what might have been” with this team, though, after Levi Cook transferred to Huntington Prep. They could have been a real threat to make the tournament with him.

After a down stretch in both football and basketball, Weir put together a really nice season on the gridiron this fall and made it back to the playoffs. I’d be lying if I said I knew very much about either their football or basketball players, but I’m just interested to see if the group of athletes and the success in football will carry over to basketball and get a traditionally strong program back on track.

Class A Season Preview 2014-15

It’s that time of year again, basketball lovers. The long wait is over. The calendar has turned over to December, girls’ basketball games start this week, the Super Six is this weekend, and the boys’ season will tip off next week. It’s time to take a look at each classification and preview the season.

As I’ve done in the past, I’ll be declaring my preseason championship favorite, the teams I view as the top contenders, the teams I believe are very good but maybe a level below the top contenders, some dark horses that I believe could be a very good surprise team or about which I have some questions or concerns, and then some other teams of note.

I’m starting with Class A because I think it is the most clear-cut of all of the classifications. There can always be surprises, but I am most confident in this breakdown. I’m sure I’ve missed some teams, and I’ve inevitably missed a few kids that have transferred in or out, but as always, I’ve done my best. Without any further ado:

Favorites

Wheeling Central

I don’t know how you could place anyone besides the defending champs here. Sure, they’ll miss the likes of David Park and Alonzo Manns a little, but they are still loaded. I look for WVU commit Chase Harler to have a monster year that could put him in contention for state player of the year honors. They have some shooters, such as Boyd Bibey, returning. They added Trenton Smith, a guard that saw the floor a lot for Wheeling Park last year, and I expect incoming freshman Brent Price to step in and make an immediate impact. I’m not predicting that they’ll go undefeated, but it’s hard to look at their schedule and pinpoint many, if any, losses. I’m also not necessarily saying that none of the other Class A schools can knock them off, but they are certainly the standard that the other teams will need to reach this season.

Top Contenders

Greater Beckley Christian

This team is loaded with talent. I think Elisha Kidd (21 ppg last season) is the most underrated player in the state. (If he were wearing a different “Beckley” uniform, I think he’d be getting player of the year buzz.) He can score just about every way there is to score (catch and shoot, shoot off the dribble, get to the rim, draw fouls, etc.), and the state caught a glimpse of this when he sparked GBC’s wild comeback in the quarterfinals before falling to Clay-Battelle. I expect him to have a monster year. I also look for Isaiah Francis to increase his scoring average to the mid- to high-teens this season to accompany his good point guard play. They also return starters Anthony Helton and Brent Daniels and some other key subs. This team certainly has the athleticism to compete with Central, and their ability to defend will keep them in the game with anyone in March. If I had to take a team besides Central to win the title, I’d take Greater Beckley Christian.

Magnolia

Magnolia was one of the best teams not to make the state tournament last year, and they didn’t even get out of their tough section. They return junior standout Preston Boswell, who is capable of taking over just about any game. They also return Spencer Campbell, and I look for Mitch Winters to have a big season inside. Nothing will come easy in that section or region, but I expect the Blue Eagles to be making the trip to Charleston again in March this year.

Tug Valley

Last season, the Panthers predictably had some struggles replacing the key pieces from their back-to-back title runs and lacked experience. By the end of the season, though, they were a very dangerous team, especially at home. Now, they are a veteran squad that returns all but one player from last year’s regional finalist. I look for junior Calvin Blankenship to make that next leap forward this season and be really good at the point. If Hayden Sturgell can be a reliable double figures scorer at the shooting guard position, and Austin Basiden can give them production inside, they can be right up there with the best in the state. Also, Tug has a fantastic freshman class, some of whom will compete for varsity minutes right away. Don’t be surprised if Jeremy Dillon and/or Tyler May from that class cracks the starting lineup this season. I expect Tug to be very good this year, but they still might be a year away.

Notre Dame

The Irish lost Cal Cistaro and a slew of other starters/contributors from last year’s semifinalist, but I don’t look for Notre Dame to fall very far. They return Jarrod West, who burst on the scene in the quarterfinals last year by drilling a series of clutch threes. I look for him to have a big season, and I’m told that they have some new faces that will put them right back among the top contenders to win the title.

Next Level

St. Joseph

St. Joe’s was one of the season’s big surprises last year when they went undefeated for a long stretch of the season and stayed atop the polls for a much of the year. The Irish just never were quite able to pick up the key wins against top “A” competition when they really needed them, falling to Charleston Catholic in the sectional final and Parkersburg Catholic in the regional final. I look for St. Joseph to take that next step this season and make it to the state tournament from a region that is more wide open than it has been in years. Sophomore Keith Clemons had a very good freshman season and could develop into a really special player. I know the Irish will be good, but I’ll be very interested to see if they can jump up into that next group and seriously contend for a title.

Valley (Fayette)

The Greyhounds will miss Raeshawn Breckenridge, who graduated, and Druw Bowen, who transferred to George Washington, but they still have a lot of talent coming back. Zac Warden is nearly unstoppable when he’s hitting shots from outside, and Henry Barron-Houchins has a ton of talent and athleticism at the point guard position. If they can plug those other holes well, they could become title contenders. They will face a struggle to get out of that region, though, with Tug Valley and Greater Beckley Christian on the other side.

Clay-Battelle

The Cee-Bees lost a good bit from last year’s semifinalist, including leading scorer Zach Chisler. They return their next two top scorers, however, in Cannon Brummage and Jarret Hockenberry. That alone should be enough to win them several games this season. Clay-Battelle also is in that region with Wheeling Central, Magnolia, and others, so they will have to earn a return trip to Charleston.

Dark Horses

St. Marys

I didn’t get to see the Blue Devils play last year, but I know they return a lot from a very good team, and I’ve heard a lot of good things about them. They’ll be led this year by Jessy Moore, and they could very well end up claiming one of those spots in the state tournament from Region 1. I can see a scenario where Magnolia will have to go on the road to St. Marys for a regional final, which could bode very well for the Blue Devils.

Tucker County

I’m just not quite sure what to make of Tucker County. For the first time since the early 80s, Tom Gutshall will not be the coach of the Mountain Lions. New coach Dave Kyle, however, had great success as the girls’ coach at Tucker. I want to go ahead and pencil them in to make their 14th consecutive trip to the state tournament (they’ve made it every year since dropping to Class A), but they did lose quite a bit from last year. We’ll all have to wait and see on the Mountain Lions this year. Derek Zirk and Chase Alkire are key returners.

Pendleton County

I like the way this Pendleton County program is progressing under coach Ryan Lambert. I saw them a few years ago, and though they weren’t all that good, you could see some sparks and some promise. They had a really nice season last year and came fairly close to stealing a state tourney bid from Notre Dame. They have some of those kids coming back, and the Wildcats may have a chance to make their first trip to Charleston since consolidation.

Other Teams of Note

There are a few more teams that I either feel are worth mentioning or that I hear good things about but really don’t know much about the team.

I’ve had several people tell me that they think Gilmer County is going to have a really good year. If so, the Titans will have a pretty good shot of making it to Charleston out of that region.

From that same region, I’ve also heard that Williamstown has a bunch of kids returning and should have a really good year.  They will also have a chance to make it out of that region.

Bishop Donahue would probably have been right up there with the title contenders had Chaice Truex not transferred away. They will also have Jesse Padlow recovering from a late-season football injury.

I know Parkersburg Catholic lost most everyone from their tourney team a year ago, but I’ve heard they should be pretty good.

I’ve also heard that Trinity has a pretty solid team again this year, but they have a lot tougher path to Charleston now that they’re in powerful Region 1.

It’s hard to tell what to make of Charleston Catholic after Coach McClanahan retired and Garret McCarty and Nick George graduated. (After what seemed like a decade of playing for the Irish, yes, Nick George finally graduated.) They’ll need Hayden McCarty to step up and have a huge year.

Man was pretty up and down a year ago, but they have most everyone back from that team. They have a good bit of talent, but they will face a huge battle just to get out of their section with Tug and GBC.

UPDATE 12/2/14 3:55 PM

I was just made aware of and confirmed that Keith Clemons suffered a major knee injury and will miss significant time, if not the entire season, for St. Joe’s. This is a pretty big bummer because Clemons is a heck of a player, and I feel really bad both for him and for those of us that enjoy watching him play. If he’s out for the whole year or isn’t at full strength when he returns, multiply what I said about the region being open for Gilmer County and Williamstown by about 100.

UPDATE 12/6/14 9:45 PM

Two more updates:

First, I failed to give Paden City its proper place in the original preview. I looked for and was unable to find any information on the Wildcats before posting the original preview, and I never say that a team is going to be good simply because they were good the previous year. I was told that they return just about everyone from last season, which means they should be really good this year. How good? Well, it’s hard to tell because that region is pretty brutal. They’ll be somewhere in the mix, though, and certainly a threat to knock off some really good teams.

Also, I was informed that Chase Alkire enrolled at Notre Dame this year, so remove his name from the Tucker County section and insert it into the Notre Dame section. I was also told that Mikhail Lewis is now back at Tucker, so, if true, I guess it evens out for the Mountain Lions.

A Look at the Division I Talent in WV

I really believe we’re in something like uncharted waters in West Virginia high school basketball right now. I don’t have the stats to back it up (I looked, but couldn’t really find anything useful), but I certainly can’t remember a time when we’ve been this rich in Division I hoops talent in West Virginia.

Sure, there are some other times that stick out in my mind. I know Hot Rod Hundley and Jerry West, possibly the state’s two best ever, played within a few years of each other. O.J. Mayo and Patrick Patterson came right before Pierria Henry. Jason Williams and Randy Moss (who could have played D-1 hoops) were on the same team and played against Gene Nabors. I could go on.

While we don’t currently have the sure-fire future lottery picks or NBA players, I can’t remember a time when there were so many Division I hoops prospects across the state and in each grade. (If there is an era of which I am not aware, please let me know.) I can pretty easily get to 10 players that have either D-1 offers or strong interest in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes, and that is not counting a few in the Eastern Panhandle that I’ve not yet seen. There is also an 8th grader at Shady Middle, Bryce Radford, that just accepted an opportunity to go and play at Oak Hill Academy. Combine all this with the depth of girls’ talent in the state (1 is a freshman at Notre Dame this year, 3 seniors committed to play at Marshall, 1 junior is committed to play at Michigan State, etc.), and I really do believe this is a special time for hoops in WV.

(Disclaimer: I think just about every time is special for hoops in WV because I love it. It would be hard for anyone to deny this is a special time for talent, though.)

Here is my assessment of some of those prospects that I have personally watched multiple times. There are some others I know have garnered some interest that I hope to see this year, plus a couple of freshmen that have garnered Division I offers or at least strong interest. (List of offers is either from Verbal Commits or ones I know from word of mouth.)

Seniors

Levi Cook, Forward/Center, Huntington Prep

In general, I’m not including Huntington Prep players, but as I’m sure you all know, Cook played his freshman and sophomore season at Liberty (Raleigh) High School. From the first time I saw Levi, I was impressed with his skill for a big man. He didn’t just get a bunch of points and rebounds because he was tall, but he really knew how to play the game. He has great passing skills, and he continually makes the right play when he catches the ball in the post. He was not a standout last year at Huntington Prep, but playing against that top competition was what he really needed. Cook was committed for well over a year to WVU, but late in the summer he decided to open his recruiting back up. He could still land at WVU, but he will definitely end up at a major program.

Offers: WVU, Marshall, Northern Kentucky

Dikembe Dixson, Guard/Forward, Mingo Central

Dikembe made a splash last year when he and his cousin, Montrell, moved to Mingo Central in the middle of the season. For some, I suppose that fizzled out when Mingo Central lost a series of close games late in the year and failed to make it to a regional final. It shouldn’t have, though, because the Dixsons are really good, and Mingo Central will be really good this year. Dikembe is very skilled on offense. He is an above average shooter from the outside and quick off the dribble. He struggled a little last year against physical defenses that packed the paint and forced him to be almost exclusively an outside shooter. (That was partly due to not having a ton of other weapons. That will not be the case when he has Montrell eligible this season.) With his skill and athleticism, he’s almost impossible to stop 1-on-1. I expect his point average to be somewhere in the high teens or low twenties this season.

Offers: Cleveland State, Marshall, Bradley

Juniors

Montrell Dixson, Guard/Forward, Mingo Central

I think Montrell is the best prospect out of this whole bunch. He is an absolute freak athlete with long arms, and he uses that to attack both the rim and the glass. When I saw him play at a camp in Parkersburg this summer, he stood out in a group of really, really good high school players. He dunks more than just about any player I’ve seen in live game action, and he does it off the dribble, on putbacks, on oops, and just about any other way you could think. He is less skilled on offense than Dikembe, but he can also find ways to score without needing to have the ball in his hands all that much. He’s also a good defender and impossible to keep of the boards. As he continues to develop his shot and off the dribble, he will have an endless list of big offers.

Offers: Missouri, Cleveland State, UNLV, Bradley, Alabama

Tavian Dunn-Martin, Guard, Huntington

When I first saw Dunn-Martin play, I wasn’t exactly blown away. He’s very short, and largely because of that, I wasn’t sure he’d be able to become a major impact player in AAA. I was very, very wrong. I initially wasn’t a fan of the way he took some off-balance shots, because that often breeds inconsistency. The more I watched him, the more I realized that: A) Those shots went in A LOT, and B) This is what he needs to do to get his shots off. This isn’t unlike short guards in the NBA like Chris Paul or Allen Iverson who can actually make their size an asset by the way they can get shots off. Then the state tournament happened, and Dunn-Martin was the best or second-best player on the AAA state champion (I’d probably say Nicks was the best, but you could definitely talk me into Dunn-Martin) who hit some absolute daggers in key moments. Then this past summer, his recruiting took off as hit lit up the AAU circuit, scoring 44 points against one of the better teams in the country. He’s very quick, and excellent ball-handler and playmaker, and he can be an absolutely lights-out shooter. I expect him to have a huge offensive season, which he’s already hinted could be his last in WV before heading to a prep school.

Offers: Central Florida, UMBC, East Tennessee State

Chase Harler, Guard, Wheeling Central

Shortly after he committed to WVU, I saw Harler compared to the likes of former Mountaineer shooters like Patrick Beilein and Alex Ruoff. I must say that’s not the type of game I see in Harler. He is certainly a streaky shooter (he hit several big outside shots in the state title game), but I don’t see that as the best part of his game. He is very athletic, really tough, and a great competitor, and I love his relentlessness in attacking the rim. He is also a hard-working and very good defender. The WVU comparison I’ve liked best for him is Mike Gansey—someone who hits outside shots but that’s not necessarily his calling card. He is already so good, but he still seems a little bit raw to me, which is scary. I think he can be a really nice player in Morgantown. My favorite tidbit about Harler that I think is very telling of his competitiveness and skill: In OT of the state championship game as a sophomore, he had 30 points and his next highest scoring teammate had 6.

Committed: WVU

Brandon Knapper, Guard, South Charleston

The word I’ve both said and heard the most about Brandon Knapper: smooth. He has a beautiful stroke and is in complete control of the game when he has the ball in his hands. He’s one of those rare players that somehow seems quicker with the ball in his hands that he does without it. He went through about a 10-game stretch last season where he was absolutely unguardable, capped by him dropping 40 points on Woodrow Wilson. If he bulks up a little (and he has plenty of time to do so), I think he can be great in the Big 12.

Committed: WVU

Sophomores

Elijah Cuffee, Guard/Forward, Poca

Cuffee is a fascinating player to me. I can’t tell you how many times last year it seemed like Cuffee was having a mediocre game and then I looked down and he had 22 points and 12 rebounds. He is an excellent rebounder and can score in a lot of ways, and he is also a very good defender. He’s also a very smart player, and not once when I watched him last season did I think I was looking at a freshman. (Same with Frampton) He finds so many ways to impact the game without being flashy. He is in a guard’s body right now for the next level, and he will need to continue to develop his outside shot and ball handling. I’m not sure how high his ceiling is in comparison to others.

Offers: Marshall, Liberty, Longwood

Luke Frampton, Guard, Poca

Luke Frampton is such a smooth and versatile player. At 6’4”, he has great size for a guard. At times, he would bring the ball up the floor while also guarding the other team’s big man. He was probably the defensive stopper, or at least the most versatile defender, as a freshman on an excellent defensive team last year. (Bluefield didn’t extent its lead in the semifinals last year until Frampton, who was guarding Anthony Eades, went to the bench in the third quarter with foul trouble.) He has a really nice stroke and is a good passer. He’s a very complete player that I expect to continue to get better. It’s possible that he has the highest ceiling of any of these players with the exception of Montrell Dixson.

Offers: Marshall, James Madison

Isaiah Francis, Guard, Greater Beckley Christian

Francis probably entered last season with the most hype of any of the players in his class. (Scoring 50 points in a middle school game will have that effect.) He didn’t have an outstanding season from a scoring perspective, but I think that helped him as a player. He played with two other very good guards that carried more of the scoring load, and this allowed Francis to become more of a pure point guard and complete player than just a scorer. He seemed just a touch overwhelmed at first, but by the end of the season, he had become a very good defender and passer. Now that Javonne Staunton-Bailey has graduated, I expect Francis to be much more of a scorer alongside Elisha Kidd. He also has elite athleticism.

Offers: None Known

Jarrod West, Guard, Notre Dame

The son of the former WVU player of the same name, West burst on the scene in the state quarterfinals when he hit big shot after big shot as the Irish took down Tucker County in overtime. West is a good ball handler and a lights out shooter, and he showed an ability to perform on the big stage. Having a father who was a major college player can only help in preparation and recruitment. He hasn’t garnered quite as much interest as some of the others, but I think his recruiting is on the verge of taking off either this season or next summer.

Offers: None Known

There are so many talented players throughout the state right now. My advice to you is to go and watch them. Heck, if you catch a game between Mingo Central and Poca, you will see at least four Division I players. Go out and watch some games and appreciate our talent.

 

Update: 11/10/14 10:45am

As expected, some readers have started sending me some players that have either offers or interest from Division I schools. (I really do appreciate those and please send any others my way.) One of these is Greater Beckley Christian’s Elisha Kidd, who reportedly has interest from Cleveland State, Liberty, and ETSU. (I’m glad to hear this because I think Kidd is the most underrated player in WV.) Another is Phil Bledsoe of Wheeling Park, who I am told has an offer from Navy.

Though I didn’t know about their interest and offers, I wouldn’t necessarily say I “missed” these kids. I have written about them multiple times and am not surprised to hear of their offers, but I wasn’t necessarily trying to be totally comprehensive with this. I included the players that I either knew had solid, multiple D1 offers or I was sure would be on their way to several offers. We have several other players, such as Kidd and Bledsoe, that will likely end up playing for D-1 programs. There could easily be as many as 6-8 more of these statewide. I think that only supports the argument above that we are loaded with hoops talent right now.