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Stephens, Wheeling Central Want to Get Back on Top

November 21, 2007
After winning four straight West Virginia Class A state basketball championships, the Wheeling Central boys’ team has experienced a slight downturn the past two seasons.

In 2006, the Maroon Knights reached the state final but were knocked off by Charleston Catholic. Last March, coach Mel Stephens’ club fell to Bishop Donahue in the sectional final.

With seven lettermen returning from the 2007 club that posted a 20-4 record, expectations are high that the Wheeling parochial school can reverse the recent trend and take a run at the top this season.

‘‘Our goal every year is to get to Charleston,’’ said Stephens, who was coach of the 2004 and 2005 state-title winners. ‘‘Realistically, we know that’s not going to happen every year. Hopefully, the kids will improve enough during the season to again give us the opportunity to play in the state tournament.’’

Although the Maroon Knights are top-heavy in returning lettermen, just two of them, seniors Cory McKitrick (6-foot-4) and Alex Peluchette (6-2), saw significant playing time.

McKitrick, a two-year starter, averaged 13.5 points and 9.4 rebounds while playing in the post. Peluchette, also the quarterback on Wheeling Central’s powerhouse football team, averaged six points, 3.5 rebounds and two assists per game as a junior.

McKitrick and Peluchette, incidentally, are the only two Wheeling Central players with state-tournament experience, a rarity for the Maroon Knights’ basketball program.

‘‘The rest of our kids haven’t been there and this could be a incentive for them to get better as the season unfolds,’’ Stephens said.

A newcomer to the Central roster should help fill one of the three vacated spots in the starting lineup. Shane Phillips, a 5-9 senior transfer from Mt. Lebanon (Pa.) High School, takes over the duties of running the offense from his point guard position.

‘‘Shane played a little bit with us during the summer and he looked like a decent player,’’ Stephens said. ‘‘He works hard and knows the game. He also gives us another guy with playing experience but he still has to learn our system.’’

Rounding out the list of lettermen are juniors Eli Joseph (6-2), Cody Koehler (6-2), DeVaughn (5-9) and Dan Gordon (6-2), plus sophomore Jack Weishar (5-11).

Among the other players seeking varsity playing time include seniors R.J. Miller (6-2) and Nick Garbark (5-8), juniors D’Onte Long (5-10), Nick Hurley (5-11) and Xavier Whetzel (5-6), along with sophomores Jordon Sorge (5-9), Zach Hood (5-7) and Joe Neidhardt (5-9).

McKitrick, Joseph, Miller and Dan Gordon give the Maroon Knights a strong, physical presence around the basket. Phillips and DeVaughn Gordon can play the point, along with Sorge and Hood. Among the top wings will be Peluchette, Koehler, Long, Weishar, Hurley, Neidhart and Wetzel.

Rounding out the list of candidates for varsity or junior varsity positions are sophomores Tucker Wilkinson (5-10), Trey Zambito (6-2), Johnny Belancic (5-10), Michael Felton (6-1), Alex Gompers (5-9), Ben Cuchta (6-0), Alden Ghaphery (5-10), Nathan McFadden (5-7), McKenzie O’Brien (6-3), Tyler Droginske (5-11) and John Tankovits (6-1).

Nearly half of the candidates are also members of the football team, which meant they weren’t be able to join the preseason workouts.

With the Maroon Knights not scheduled to open the season until Dec. 14 at Shadyside, the candidates should have enough time to impress the coaches and get in their seven required practices before being eligible to appear in a game.

Starting with Shadyside, the Central schedule again is very formidable. If fact, Stephens thinks it is tougher than last year because many of the Maroon Knight opponents are expected to be better than last year.

‘‘It’s definitely more challenging,’’ Stephens said. ‘‘Shadyside might be one of the better teams around the valley. Linsly and Wheeling Park should be very strong, while John Marshall is expecting one of its better teams for a while.’’

The Maroon Knights also will take on Maryland invader St. Mary’s Ryken in the Undo’s Tournament and St. Joseph Prep, from Philadelphia, in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Central also has a rugged early February road trip to play two-time defending state Class A titlist Charleston Catholic and powerful Gilbert in back-to-back games. Gilbert returns most of its players from the team that went undefeated until losing to Bishop Donahue in the semifinals of the state tournament..

Home-and-home games are booked against Shadyside, Oak Glen, Wheeling Park, John Marshall, Linsly and Weir. Morgantown Trinity, Steubenville Catholic, Magnolia, Charleston Catholic and Gilbert show up on the schedule once each.

Stephens also is delighted that the Ohio Valley Athletic Conference will hold a tournament in early February to determine the four division champions. The top four teams in each of the OVAC divisions will qualify for the championship playoffs while the remaining teams in each division will also participate in a tournament.

‘‘We will be looking to try and be competitive, squeeze out some wins and be ready to go when the sectional tournament comes up in March.

Stephens’ top assistant is Dave Koehler, who will also coach the jayvee team. Freshman coaches are John Moore and Larry Finneran.

Fact Box

Whg. Central Boys

Dec. 14: at Shadyside 7:30 p.m.
*Dec. 15: Coaches vs. Cancer TBA
Dec. 18: at Oak Glen 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 22: at Wheeling Park 7:30 p.m.
*Dec. 27-28: Undo’s Tournament TBA
Jan. 4: Shadyside 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 8: at John Marshall 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11: at Morgantown Trinity 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 16: at Linsly School 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 19: at Weir 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 22: John Marshall 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 25: at Steub. Catholic 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 29: Magnolia 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 1: at Charleston Catholic 7:30 p.m.
**Feb. 2: Gilbert 5:30 p.m.
***Feb. 5 OVAC Tournament TBA
Feb. 6: Linsly School 7:30 p.m.
***Feb. 8: OVAC Tournament TBA
***Feb. 9: OVAC Tournament TBA
****Feb. 13: Wheeling Park 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 19: Weir 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 22: Oak Glen 7:30 p.m.
*-at Wheeling Jesuit University
**—at Logan High School
***-at Ohio University Eastern
****-at WesBanco Arena

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