WHEELING-After three straight years of being a prime contender for the West Virginia Class AAA boys' basketball championship,Wheeling Park finds itself cast in an unfamiliar dark horse role entering the 2012-13 season.
Coach Michael Jebbia saw four highly regarded starters and three other seniors graduate last spring from a 20-6 team that was upset 39-37 in overtime by Hedgesville during the quarterfinals of the state tournament. The previous two years saw the Patriots advance to the state championship game before coming short in their bid for the Ohio County consolidated school's first West Virginia crown since the 1995 season.
The impressive list of Park seniors was headed by 2012 West Virginia Player of the Year Boo Lathon, a member of the football squad at West Liberty University. Lathon averaged 19.8 points and 10.8 rebounds while collecting 15 double-doubles.
Errin Baynes, a second-team all-WV performer in basketball and nationally ranked three-time state high jump champion, is a University of Southern California track and field performer. In basketball last year, he averaged 14 points and 4.1 rebounds.
The other starters ending their high school careers were Fairmont University football recruit Vondel Bell and Emil Popicg, currently attending WVU. Other graduates were Na'Kwaun Phillips, Ohio University Eastern basketball performer, Lee Peluchette (WVU student) and Kody Geisel, football and track performer at Seton Hill College.
''We lost seven guys that were obviously tremendous contributors to the program," Jebbia said. ''Errin, Vondel and Boo were part of 67 wins in three years. No other Park group has won that many games in three years time.
''The general perception is that Wheeling Park is going to be down. I think our kids heard that (from everybody) this summer and they've worked extra hard because this group may want to try and prove something. These seniors have paid their dues in freshman basketball, then as jayvees and having a small role with the varsity. They've done everything we've asked and now it is their turn to play the extra minutes. Fortunately, we also have some really good young kids to mix in with the seniors.''
The lone returning starter is junior Luke Saseen, already a two-year letterman. During his sophomore season, Saseen averaged 7.1 points and 4.1 rebounds. Included were high scoring games of 18 points against a tough North Allegheny club, 17 versus Logan and 15 against South Charleston.
He will be joined in the starting lineup at the outset of the season by seniors Michael Thomas (5-9 point guard), Quashad Pugh (6-foot-4 off-guard), Zach Snedeker (6-1 forward) and Andrew Kowalo (6-3 forward).
Regarded as a good defender with some solid shooting skills, Thomas started five games a year ago.
Expected to share more of the scoring load is Pugh, a speedy left-hander with good range. Pugh also managed a couple of starts last year when the Patriots experienced some injury problems.
Snedeker looked to be Park's most improved player during preseason and hopefully can provide some rebounding help on a team that does not have a lot length inside. Kowalo could be this year's energy bunny, according to Jebbia.
''Andrew is our energy guy and he plays very hard every time he steps on the court. He is going to be asked to guard some of the other team's bigger players,'' Jebbia said.
Two other upperclassmen in the mix are senior DuQuan Smith-Ellerbee (6-1) and junior Zach Phillips (6-1), the quarterback on the Patriots football team.
The talented sophomore class is headed by Theo Blackston (6-0, 220-pounder), Trenton Smith (6-0), Ryan Reinbeau (6-2) and Chalmer Moffett (6-3). All four are fighting for extensive playing time with Blackston making the strongest bid to nab a starting position.
Reinbeau is the son of former Wheeling Central Catholic and Wheeling Jesuit University Hall of Famer Jackie Ernest Reinbeau.
Other players being looked at to contribute in the near future are juniors Justice Jackson (6-1) and Quavonte Pugh (6-1) along with sophomores Boyd Bibey (6-1) and Nick Vargo.
The Patriots will open the season at home against the Jeff Mennillo-coached Parkersburg High on Saturday, Dec. 8. The Big Reds are one of three new opponents, the others being Winfield and 2012 Class AA runner-up Bluefield.
The Bluefield Beavers finished 26-2 last season and return first-team all-state junior Anthony Eades.
In the Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling Jesuit University, Park will have a rematch against Philadelphia St. Joseph's Prep on Saturday, Jan. 5. St. Joe's lineup includes Notre Dame recruit Steven Vasturia and Wake Forest signee Miles Overton.
''We have a really tough December with games against Parkersburg, University, Winfield, North Allegheny and Morgantown, which has all five guys back and may be ranked No. 1 in the preseason,'' Jebbia said. ''We finish off the month on the road against John Marshall before starting January in the CRC Classic.
''If we battle through December in good shape, we should be fine. We are excited about the season. Each year is a new journey and I'm looking forward to playing that first game,'' Jebbia said.
Tony Marvin, Dave Stahnke and Dave Koehler return as varsity assistants while guiding the freshmen will be Terry Payne and Don Headley.
Wheeling Park Boys
Dec. 8: Parkersburg 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 12: at University 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 21: at Winfield *5:15 p.m.
Dec. 22: at North Allegheny (Pa.) 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 27: Morgantown 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 29: at John Marshall 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 5: St. Joseph's Prep ** 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 8: Wheeling Central 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 11: at Parkersburg South 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 12: at Bluefield 2 p.m.
Jan. 15: at Brooke 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 16: University 7:30 p.m.
Jan.18: John Marshall 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 22: at Steubenville 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 26: Zanesville 7:30 p.m.
Jan. 30: Brooke 7:30 p.m.
Feb.5: at Morgantown 7:30 p.m,.
Feb. 8: Parkersburg South 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 12: OVACTBA
Feb. 21: George Washington 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 23: South Charleston 7:30 p.m,
* at Charleston Civic Center
**Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling Jesuit University