Magnolia Girls Embrace Underdog Role

Blue Eagles will face Tucker Co. in first round

Photo by Josh Strope Magnolia’s Mady Winters cuts down the net after the Blue Eagles defeated Cameron in a Regional Co-Final against Cameron.

NEW MARTINSVILLE — When looking at the Class A field for the West Virginia Girls’ State Basketball Tournament, Magnolia sticks out like a sore thumb.

The Blue Eagles aren’t a regular visitor to Charleston. They didn’t make the OVAC Tournament. They weren’t ranked in the top 10 of the Class A poll at any point this season.

Nobody is giving them a second thought about what they could do in this tournament.

And that is just fine with them.

When Magnolia kicks off the Class A portion of the tournament at 9:30 a.m. Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center against No. 3 Tucker County (23-1), the Blue Eagles, slotted as the No. 6 seed, will be going in as an underdog, a role they have thrived in all season.

“They are ecstatic about coming down here and are so pumped about the trip. They want to keep proving people wrong,” Magnolia coach Meredith Pilant said. “I will be waiting for the nerves to kick in when we get down there, but I don’t think we are going to see the opportunity being so big because we are so young and there isn’t that pressure.

“We are going in with a lot of confidence and that is what helped us down the stretch.”

Magnolia won nine of its last 11 games. The two losses came at the hands of AAA power Morgantown and Class A ranked Cameron.

In that game against the Dragons, Magnolia led for most of the night before letting it slip away. It was a loss that stuck in their minds for two weeks.

After winning a sectional championship against Ritchie County, the Blue Eagles had the chance to redeem themselves in a Regional Co-Final against Cameron.

The Blue Eagles’ lone senior, Logan Riggs, had a big fourth quarter, including a clutch 3-pointer, and Magnolia stunned Cameron, 50-47, and earned its first trip to the state tournament since 2007.

“We started out 4-5, but those five losses were against good teams and we were in all of them except for the Wheeling Central game,” Pilant said. “A lot of that had to do with youth, not just from them, but us as first-year coaches. We started to gel midway through the season and the wins just kept coming.”

Magnolia enters the tournament with a 16-9 mark and while Pilant has never coached on the big stage and none of their girls have played in the Charleston Civic Center, the Blue Eagles may have a secret weapon in assistant coach Mark Winters.

Winters is no stranger to the atmosphere that await the young Blue Eagles.

This marks the ninth straight year he will be involved with tournament play in Charleston. As a player for Magnolia, Winters’ teams went to the tournament all four years. He followed that up with return trips as a member of the Wheeling Jesuit squad playing in the Mountain East Conference Tournament. Now he is back in his first year as an assistant coach.

“He has been talking about this from the beginning,” Pilant said. “What an experience it is, to take in every moment, take in the pep rally, save the newspapers.”

The Charleston Civic Center’s open area is notoriously hard on shooters, but Pilant doesn’t think that will hinder her team one bit.

A big reason for that is because much of their offense comes from the inside duo of Kyndra Pilant and Mady Winters.

Kyndra Pilant averaged a double-double last season but has really come on in her sophomore season.

The forward averaged 15.9 rebounds, 16 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 4.1 blocks. She set single-game school records this season with 11 blocks and 27 rebounds.

“She wasn’t sure what her role was but then it just clicked for her,” Meredith Pilant said. “She had two triple-doubles, 17 or 18 double-doubles. And now she has the confidence to pull up at the foul line to take a jumper, or take you to the basket. Her defensive game has improved so much.”

Mady Winters is the baby sister of Mark Winters and there is a lot of pressure on her shoulders. Just a freshman, she has exceeded those expectations and then some.

The Blue Eagles center averages 16.6 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. She had 61 blocks on the season with 15 double-doubles. She has scored more than 30 points three times this season and brought down 22 rebounds against Ritchie County.

Riggs is the upperclassman that took the team on her shoulders during the postseason. At the beginning of the year, she was asked to switch from a forward to a point guard and did it seamlessly.

She averaged 7.8 points per game during the regular season, but upped that number to 14 during their three postseason victories. She averages 5.8 assists. She will get the tough task of guarding Tucker County all-stater Sydney Nestor (19.5 ppg).

“We would have never made it to Charleston without Logan Riggs,” Meredith Pilant said. “When some of the girls had that deer in the headlights look, Logan took control. She is our leader this year.”

Kennedy Parsons is the deep threat with 21 3-pointers and also a team-best 74 percent free-throw shooting. Sierra Walker rounds out the starting lineup.

Lenieca Grimm is the sixth man. Marissa Postlethwaid, Rian Dawson, Kadyn Fluharty, Lara Ann Smith and Reagan Hale round out the roster.

“We know Tucker County is a team with decent size, but that works out well for us because of our size,” Meredith Pilant said. “Logan will be up to the challenge on (Nestor). We feel if we stick to our game plan, we will be fine.

“They love being the underdog. Their slogan is ‘Just Win, Baby!’ They don’t care if it is by one or 20. Survive and advance.”