WHEELING - It's been quite a year for Coach Penn Kurtz and his Wheeling Central girls' basketball team.
From starting five new players to beating then-undefeated and top-ranked St. Marys on the road, the Maroon Knights have had their share of ups and downs.
Now it's time to put all that aside. The focus now is on winning a state championship.
Wheeling Central’s Lindsey Baker and the Maroon Knights will face Charleston Catholic tonight in the first round of the state tournament.
It starts at 9 tonight at the Charleston Civic Center when the No. 4 seed Knights (14-10) take on No. 5 Charleston Catholic (19-6) in the quarterfinal round of the state tournament.
''They're very quick,'' Kurtz said of the Irish. ''They're not real tall, but they're quick. They're well coached, so they're very fundamental.''
It'll be the third meeting between the two West Virginia Class A opponents. Central swept the regular-season series with a 49-44 road victory Jan. 24 before rallying for a 54-52, overtime triumph on the Knights' home court a week later. Central trailed by six with less than a minute to go.
''That definitely boosts our confidence,'' sophomore Lindsey Baker said of the two victories, ''but it's not going to be an easy win. It'll definitely be challenging because they're a good team.''
The Irish are led by 5-foot-9 freshman post Vida Imani (16.3 points per game) along with seniors Anna Whelan (13.8 ppg) and Hanna Gallian (11.5 ppg).
''(Imani) is very tough,'' Kurtz said. ''Last time we played them, she made three 3-pointers. She'll go outside and come inside. She has a nice drop step and nice underneath moves. She presents a challenge for us.
''They're tenacious on the defensive end. They give you a lot of matchup problems.
''We just have to do what we do. If we match up and play defense well, we can try to limit their scorers, limit their shooting opportunities. We have to box out and just give them one shot.
''On the offensive end, we have to execute. We have to take advantage of their aggressiveness so we can get easy shots. Transition and half-court execution will be key. If we set good screens, back-cut, do the things you can against an aggressive team, we can take care of their aggressiveness.''
The Maroon Knights, who have won four straight after a three-game skid, will look to 5-10 junior Regan Blaha to continue her solid season. Blaha leads the team in both points (12.6) and rebounds (7.2) per game.
''If we can keep Regan out of foul trouble, she has a tendency to reach a little bit, but if we can keep her out of foul trouble, she really makes us a better team,'' Kurtz said. ''She's a hard matchup because she's tall and quick. Other teams have to put a four (power forward) on her or another guard. Every game she brings everything she has.''
Baker will also be a handful for the Irish on both ends of the court as well. She leads the team in field-goal percentage (42.3), assists (40) and steals (57). While she has averaged a modest 10.3 points per game through the season, she has amped it up as of late and is averaging 20.6 points in her last five games.
''It's hard sometimes for young players to realize you have to play on both ends of the floor,'' Kurtz said. ''I think she's starting to see if she goes out and gets steals, they turn into layups for her. That really started to boost her confidence. These last five or six games, she's played exceptional.''
Cate Calissie anchors the Maroon Knights defense. While the 5-6 junior might not fill up the stat sheet, it's her ability to shut down the opposing team's leading scorer that makes her so valuable.
''She held Bridgeport's (Caitlyn) Kroll to eight points and one field goal,'' Kurtz said. ''(Morgan) Brunner from Linsly, she held her to eight points and four of those came in the final minute. Against Trinity, she guarded the point guard, who had 16 against us at Trinity, and just shut her down. We're going to call on Cate down state to take the other players.''
Seniors MacKenzie Michaels, who had 13 points and nine rebounds against Trinity in the Region One co-final, and Ashton Cross round out the Knights' starting five, while seniors Maria Olsen and Delaney Denniston, along with junior Sydney Bennington will be the first group off the bench.
Kurtz has guided Central to 19 state tournaments in his 21 years as coach. ... With the two victories against Charleston Catholic, Central is 4-0 against tournament teams, having also beaten No. 3 Tucker County (41-39) on the road as well as No. 2 St. Marys (58-37). ... Should the Knights advance, they will face the winner of No. 1 St. Joseph Central/No. 8 Tug Valley at 7:15 on Friday night for the right to play in the championship game Saturday.