Patriots Eye State Title Run

Wheeling?Park has a good mix of youth and experience

Photo by Josh Strope Isabella Abernathy (44) and Wheeling Park are set to play George Washington on Thursday at 11:15 a.m.

WHEELING — Wheeling Park makes its second straight trip to the W.Va. Girls State Basketball Tournament and does so with a nice mixture of youth and experience.

After winning a game in last season’s tournament, the Patriots are back and looking to reach the next step when they take the floor at 11:15 a.m. Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center against George Washington.

“I’m really happy for the girls, for the seniors who get another crack at it and for the younger girls that have never experienced this,” Wheeling Park coach Ryan Young said. “With school being out, things have been a little off and it has been casual practice. I expect things to start picking up and being a different story as the week goes on.”

Wheeling Park, which is slotted as the No. 4 seed, earned the opportunity following a 46-32 regional championship victory against Morgantown, winning the rubber match between the two schools.

The Patriots claimed a sectional title with a victory against John Marshall the week prior.

Last year’s Park team had a solid group of seniors, led by first team all-stater Josie Daugherty.

The Patriots won a game against Martinsburg before bowing out in the second round against Buckhannon-Upshur.

Without Daugherty, many felt the Patriots may take a step back. That was far from the case. Wheeling Park was ranked in the Top 10 all season despite playing one of the tougher schedules in the state.

“Josie was the one with all the stats, but we also lost a lot of other really good seniors and good leaders,” Young said. “When we looked at this year’s team, we knew we had some talented kids, but we weren’t sure where things would come from a leadership standpoint.

“We have been very pleased with what we saw. Each one brings something to the table.”

What you won’t you find for the Patriots is that one player like Daugherty that is going to put up 20 points per game. Instead, this year’s team is a more balanced version, which makes it tough to key on just one player.

In fact, no one on the Patriots’ squad averages double figures in scoring.

Wheeling Park has been successful thanks to a relentless pressure defense that forces teams into mistakes. The Patriots create most of their offense from easy baskets resulting from their defense.

It is a formula that has led to a 17-6 record and return trip to the state capitol.

“We aren’t offensively challenged and have played a really tough schedule,” Young said. “We have played a lot of teams that play good defense. Our defense leads to our offense and we are comfortable relying our defense.

“You have more control of your defense and that all starts with effort.”

Senior guard Kylie McKennen is the team’s leading scorer at 9.2 points to go along with 3.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.5 steals.

McKennen missed a few weeks of the season with an injury but has been the leader Young has looked for.

“She knows who she is and earns everything she does,” Young said. “She might not have the size, but her basketball ability is unlimited as far as heart and hustle and tenacity are concerned.

“She had a rough game in the OVAC championship game and took it as a learning experience.”

Laurel Robb (5.6 ppg, 4.3 rebounds) and Brionna Gray (7.9 ppg, 39 3-pointers) are the other seniors in the lineup. Fellow senior Morgan Glass was injured early in the season and forced to miss the remainder of the slate, although she is a big supporter on the bench for her team.

Junior guard Emily Pavlic is another one of those heart and hustle players. She may be one of the smallest players on the court, but has a nose for the ball. She averages 7.7 points and 2.2 steals.

Rounding out the starting lineup is freshman center Bella Abernathy. The 5-foot-10 post player has had her share of ups and downs in her first season but has really come on strong down the stretch for the Patriots.

Young is also pleased with a bench that fit into any lineup seamless.

Freshman Asia Roby is usually first onto the floor, with Shanley Woods, Abby Jones, Kieran Johnson and Abby Snedeker not too far behind.

“We have a lot of kids that have learned to accept their role and it hasn’t been easy.” Young said. “We have a lot of kids that would get more minutes and score more points at other schools. We have a lot of parts and each one matters.

“When Morgan went out and Kylie was hurt, these kids came in and stepped up. When Kylie came back, they had to go back to their old roles and that is hard to do. That speaks volumes for what kind of kids they are.”

The Patriots play a demanding schedule, one that features four of the other seven teams in the Class AAA field. They are 2-4 in those games.

No. 5 George Washington (16-9) wasn’t one of those teams, but Young sees a lot of similarities between the two squads.

“They aren’t super big, but they work well collectively,” he said. “Katy Darnell is their leading scorer and we played against her last year. She can really score. It is going to be a very even matchup, and that is what you expect out of the 4-5 game.”

Darnell paces George Washington with points per game, followed by Kalissa Lacy with 19 and Dee McMillan with 10.