Top-Seeded Knights Look To Avoid Upset

WC heading to sixth straight state tourney

Photo by Josh Strope Wheeling Central’s Owen Gainer goes up for a layup against St. Marys in the Class A Regional Championship last week.

WHEELING — Wheeling Central enters familiar territory this week as the boys’ basketball team heads to Charleston as the No. 1 seed in the West Virginia Class A State Tournament.

The Maroon Knights are always one of the favorites to make what seems to be a yearly trip. And they are almost always one of the higher seeds.

That, of course, doesn’t always mean success.

Just last season, Wheeling Central was in the same spot — the No. 1 seed and the favorite to bring home the hardware. It didn’t work out the way it wanted.

Wheeling Central coach Mel Stephens insists that coming up short last season hasn’t played a part in the team’s success this time around.

“It probably has stuck with the team, but we didn’t talk about it at all,” Stephens said. “During the season, we are just concentrating on getting better, concentrating on that next game.

“Now that we are at this point, I am sure some of the guys will look back and want to make sure they finish this time.”

After a run of three straight trips to the state championship game (winning it all in 2014), Wheeling Central was knocked off in the semifinals by eventual state champion Notre Dame.

If there was any hangover from last season’s defeat, it hasn’t showed. In fact, the Maroon Knights have looked as dominant as ever.

The Maroon Knights won the OVAC Class 3A title and cruised to a 22-2 record, the two losses coming to Pennsylvania power Mars in the Cancer Research Classic, and a home setback to Notre Dame.

Wheeling Central begins its quest for a 12th state title at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center against Tyler Consolidated.

Coach Rick Leach has the Silver Knights in the state tournament for the first time since 2002 in his first year back on the Tyler bench.

Stephens knows his team better be ready for the challenge because Tyler Consolidated is not your typical No. 8 seed.

“We scouted them in the regional and have seen them a bit on tape,” Stephens said. “They are good. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be one of the last eight teams standing.

“The last few years, there haven’t been a lot of blowouts. It has really leveled out across the state and you have eight really good teams playing in Charleston.

“We just know we have to focus on our game, play up tempo and rebound.”

Should Wheeling Central get by Tyler Consolidated, a familiar foe awaits in either Notre Dame or Trinity Christian in what should be one of the more exciting matchups in the first round.

Wheeling Central split with Notre Dame this season, while taking both meetings with the OVAC Class 1A champion Warriors. Wheeling Central escaped Morgantown in early January with an overtime victory.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 2 Ravenswood faces No. 7 Webster County and No. 3 Tug Valley takes on No. 6 Greater Beckley Christian.

“It is pretty solid all the way around,” Stephens said. “Tyler beat a pretty good Cameron team so we know they are good. Webster played a tough region. These are really good teams. The seeds are just dictating what times you play. The bottom line is that the team that plays the best three days in a row is the one that is going to cut down the nets.”

Leading the way for Wheeling Central is the 1-2 punch of Brent Price and Owen Gainer.

Price, a first team all-state selection last season, has lived up to that billing, often exciting the crowd with his rim-rattling dunks. Price averages 19.5 points, five rebounds and six assists per game. Defensivley, he has 61 steals and 18 blocks.

Gainer is just as good. The senior sharpshooter averages 20 points, six rebounds and three assists. He has 82 3-pointers.

Both went past the 1,000-point mark for their careers earlier this season.

But while superstars are great to have, Stephens knows this time of the year you are only as good as your supporting cast. The Maroon Knights are pretty good there, too.

Anthony Robbins came over from Bishop Donahue and has made an immediate impact, and is a force along the boards.

Bray Price and Ian Georges can get hot at any minute and when they do, can turn a close game into a blowout in a hurry.

Cedric Williams has been a solid presence and Stephens has been getting good minutes off the bench from guys like J.C. Maxwell, Jalen Creighton, Blake Peluchette, Logan Ruckh and Curtis McGhee III.

“You are always going to have the guys that get the points, but I feel like at the state tournament, everyone else has those guys, too, so that evens out,” Stephens said. “The supporting cast, that is what can put you over the top.”

The boys’ team has a tough act to follow after the girls brought the hardware back to the Friendly City this past weekend. Many of them were at the Charleston Civic Center to show their support.

“With all the success in the other sports, it just helps,” Stephens said. “There is no added pressure, but they see that moment and they want to join in and get one for themselves.”

As proud as Stephens is of his Maroon Knights for making it this far, he may be even more proud of another team.

In just his first year on the bench, Stephens’ son, Chris, has led Winfield to the Class AA portion of the state tournament. The No. 6 seeded Generals kick off the festivities at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when they take on No. 3 Westside.

“It has been a long time since Winfield has been down there and this is a pretty special moment for us,” Mel said.