Hilltoppers Have Made Jaws Drop
WEST LIBERTY – As West Liberty prepares to play Anderson (S.C.) at 6 tonight in a Division II national quarterfinal in Springfield, Mass., it’s getting beyond difficult to comprehend what this group of guys have done.
Actually, it passed that point about three weeks ago.
They’re the only unbeaten team in the country – have been for weeks. They won the West Virginia Conference regular-season and tournament titles. They played host to the Atlantic Regional – and won that, too.
They’ve won everything.
Perhaps opening night should have told us something about this group. That’s when they beat Lock Haven 154-48.
Are you kidding?
That 106-point spread is an all-time high for a WVC team. Perhaps that could have been brushed aside as an anomaly, considering that was Lock Haven’s second game. It would go on to lose 24 and win just one.
But, the jaw was still dropped two days later when they hung 157 on Point Park, which wound up winning 15 games and featured an honorable mention All-American in Kris Douse.
Speaking of All-Americans, raise your hand if you believed Corey Pelle would become a first-team All-American. Or that Jordan Fortney would wind up on third team.
I get that the top seed in the country is going to get some love when these lists come out, but there are only 15 players to make the top three lists among more than 250 schools. It’s particularly difficult to wrap your head around in Pelle’s case, if only because you’re armed with the knowledge that Pelle couldn’t even get schools to hand him a ham sandwich after his senior year of high school, let alone a scholarship.
Big mistake. Huge.
West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield had Pelle come in for a practice against the likes of Dan Binggeli, Chris Blair, Ben Howlett, Shane Maynard, Corey McDuffie, and Scott Mirich and the kid, unlike so many others, was unfazed, taking it to the hole with the same fervor he did last week against IUP superstar Darryl Webb.
That season, when the Hilltoppers were trailing in a game at the WVC Tournament, Crutchfield inserted Pelle into the game because he loved the way the kid played, calling him one of the best players in chaos he’s ever seen.
There’s little doubt about that today, where Pelle has earned a cult following around campus – and the entire community – with everyone wanting to get their hands on a Pelle’s T-shirt and watch to see where the next no-look pass is going.
Still, it doesn’t end there. No one understands the spin of a basketball better than Pelle, who has perfected the under the basket, feet planted, reverse layup that seems to defy logic, if not physics, each of the three times he does it in a game.
Pelle (1,900) and Fortney (1,056), along with John Wolosinczuk (1,486) and Barry Shetzer (1,294), make up a senior class that has scored a combined 5,736 career points. It’s the first time a WVC team has started four 1,000-point scorers.
They’ve almost eliminated that many points with Wolosinczuk’s school record – that term is used a lot when talking about these guys -215 blocks, Pelle’s 326 steals, and a combined 790 rebounds out of Shetzer and Fortney.
That’s the untold story about these Hilltoppers. It just can’t be told. Everyone wants to watch Tim Hausfeld shoot it from 30 feet, but the 5-second calls like those created by Alex Falk on a semi-regular basis get lost in the blitz.
The Arkansas teams of the early 90s and today’s Missouri teams are some of the most recognizable examples of 40-minute, full-court pressure defense that spawned cool nicknames like ”40 minutes of Hell” and ”The fastest 40 minutes in basketball.”
For much of this season, it was 20 minutes feeling like 40, 40 feeling like a week for Hilltoppers foes, who are generally so drained physically and mentally at some point during a game, they always allow WLU to go on a double-digit run and put things away.
This is all the brainchild of Crutchfield, who took over seven years ago, immediately laughed at every suggestion he was given, and created his own monster. He sometimes has difficulty answering a specific question about a play because it was a call made on the court, not from the bench. He’s often said his players make more decisions than any other players in college basketball.
They are usually the right ones, too.
”There is nothing,” he says, ”that’s not in our offensive game plan,” a blanket statement that says a whole bunch in a few words.
The next wave of Hilltoppers looks pretty good, too, with a sophomore like Chris Morrow able to come off the bench and score 20 points in a regional final, and freshman Mark Shadowens earning a spot on the WVC’s All-Freshman team despite being the third man off the bench.
Anderson, a seven-seed from the Southeast region that isn’t particularly known for its strong defense is up next. Good luck with that. It’s tough to stop the ball when you don’t know where it’s going. And only Pelle knows where it’s going.
Jim Elliott can be reached e-mail at: email@example.com