WHEELING - The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Just ask Penn Kurtz.
For the 18th time in his 20 seasons guiding the Wheeling Central girls, Kurtz is leading a team to Charleston for the West Virginia High School Girls' Basketball Tournament.
Emily Bucon and the Maroon Knights are headed back to Charleston hoping to put a title finish on a remarkable season.
The Maroon Knights (21-4), playing in their 11th straight Class A event, will face upstart Valley-Fayette (13-7) in a quarterfinal at 1 p.m. Wednesday.
"Any time you can (play in the state tournament) that many times, that means you've been pretty fortunate,'' Kurtz said.
It's true. Kurtz has been blessed with a myriad of great players and support staff. And while each team has its own chemistry, the bottom line is everyone who's passed through the program has known how to win.
Even with all that, bringing home the gold trophy hasn't been easy. The Maroon Knights last won a state title in 2008. And last season, Central came oh so close to knocking off powerful Huntington St. Joe in the championship game.
The bitter taste the loss left in the mouths of the returning players was evident as preseason camp started in November.
"We talked about (that loss) at the beginning of the year and about some of the mistakes we made that we didn't want to make again," Kurtz said. "But very quickly we put that talk away and started focusing on getting back this year."
St. Joe is again the top-seed in what is another loaded tournament at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum. The Irish (22-1) open against No. 8 seed Man (15-10) at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The other game in that half of the bracket features No. 4 seed Tucker County (19-5) against No. 5 seed Williamstown (14-9) in the 9 p.m. nightcap Wednesday.
If Central wins its opener, it faces the winner of Wednesday's 9:30 a.m. contest pitting No. 3 seed St. Marys (23-1) and No. 6 Tygarts Valley (17-7).
"There's a four-time state champ in there, I think," Kurtz said laughing when discussing the field. "I think they might be better than last year."
The Maroon Knights dropped a 49-37 decision to the Irish on Dec. 7 in what was the first of four games against tournament participants-to-be.
One day after losing to St. Joe, Central edged Williamstown, 66-65. Later in the month, Kurtz's squad defeated Tucker County, 57-44. Then, on Jan. 7, Central downed St. Marys, 57-53.
"We're pretty familiar with these teams and there shouldn't be too many surprises," Kurtz said. "When you're familiar with the teams and the (Charleston) atmosphere, it really helps."
While the St. Marys game was a victory, it came with a cost. All-stater Emily Bucon damaged her PCL, sprained her MCL and damaged her meniscus.
A short time later, another all-stater, Colleen McCormick, was injured, as well.
Even though the team continued to win, it wasn't easy.
"It set us back more than people realized," Kurtz said. "We were really on a roll going into the St. Marys game and we felt it was a pivotal game for us.
"We came out with a win, but we lost Emily."
The injury forced Kurtz and his assistants (Paul Kurtz, Suzie Dailer, Bob Robinson and Lyndsey Amirante) to make plenty of adjustments. When McCormick went down, changes had to be made again.
"Then, when they came back, you have to readjust again," Kurtz said. "It really threw off our rhythm and we struggled to get it back."
Three of Central's four losses came after the adversity, but the team still finished the regular season strong by topping Wheeling Park in its home finale.
"For Emily to come back was remarkable," Kurtz said. "It's difficult. She's not 100 percent. But the last couple of games she's gotten into a good rhythm."
With the injuries, Kurtz said his other players stepped up.
"We have some other really talented players and it gave them an opportunity," Kurtz said. "It also gave them an opportunity to see what they mean to the team."
McCormick enters the state tournament averaging 21.9 points per game and 13.9 rebounds per game. She is shooting 56 percent from the field, including an impressive 43.5 percent from beyond the arc.
Bucon is second to McCormick in both major categories, averaging 15.3 ppg and 3.8 rpg. She also also dishes an average of 3.4 assists per contest.
Madison Basinger, Maria Olson and Beth Stayduhar round out the Maroon Knights' starting five.
Regan Blaha, Delaney Denniston, Ashton Cross, Lindsey Baker, Cate Calissie, Sydney Pennington and McKenzie Michael provide the firepower from the bench.
"They've been a lot of fun," Kurtz said of the group. "They get a long well together and have fun together. They work very hard in practice."
While Central is a tournament staple, Valley-Fayette isn't.
The Greyhounds upset Tug Valley in a Region 3 co-final last week. Man won the other regional final, also on the road.
Valley is led by Alexis Payne, who exploded for 35 points and 20 boards against Tug Valley.
Kurtz said Payne is one of the state's best players and now she will get to showcase her talents on the big stage.
Abbie Buchan, Gracyn Grubb, Kelsey Bird and Alayshia Taylor are other names to watch out for.
"For being a No. 7 seed, they have some pretty decent players," Kurtz said, noting his team can't take anyone for granted.
"When you get to Charleston, you have to be ready," Kurtz said. "It takes good basketball. You can't turn the ball over and make mistakes.
"Then you have to never give up. The game's not over until the horn sounds.
"And, hopefully, when that happens, you're on the right side of the scoreboard."