W.VA. PREP BASKETBALL PREVIEW: Wheeling Park Boys Hope to Return to State
WHEELING –While the Wheeling Park boys basketball team’s final game of the 2019-20 season resulted in a win, it was not exactly how Coach Michael Jebbia and his Patriots squad planned.
For the first time since 2012, Wheeling Park advanced to the state tournament, however, it was canceled due to the coronavirus resulting in the Patriots never making the trip to Charleston to step on the floor in the Charleston Civic Center.
“Every season you play in basketball, only one ends with a win, but there’s usually that closure,” Jebbia said. “That closure of being eliminated or whatever it may be, it wasn’t there. I’m not saying we were going to win the state championship, but I think we had the team to possibly get to the state final. It’s just upsetting that we didn’t have enough knowledge at that time. Our road is very difficult to get there year in and year out.”
While Wheeling Park will have six seniors this year, it will have to replace a senior class from last year that any coach would love to have as Alex Vargo, Travis Zimmerman and Xavier Morris all picked up their diplomas.
Vargo, who now plays at Youngstown State, averaged 28 points a game during the 2019-20 season as a Patriot while Zimmerman netted 12 and Morris added 11. Zimmerman plays for Bethany while Morris is on the football team for the Bison.
“We had three really good seniors,” Jebbia said. “They combined for over 50 points a game, so that’s obviously going to be a huge loss for us. We lost a ton of our offense, so other guys will have to step up. Are we going to average 71 points a game? I’m not sure. I just think there’s different ways to play each year based on your personnel.”
The cupboard is not bare, though. The Patriots return a plethora of players from last year’s squad including D.J. Saunders (6-foot-1) who will be at point guard again. He averaged eight points while dishing out close to six assists per contest.
Classmate Shaheed Jackson (5-9) is the other starter from last year returning for the Patriots while senior Beau Heller (5-11) returns after being the sixth man from the 2019-20 team.
The Patriots also got a big addition to the senior class in Avery Lee (5-10), who transferred over from Wheeling Central. Lee was a key component in the Maroon Knights’ state-qualifying team.
The other seniors are Nate Hairston (6-3) and Jack Lewton (6-2).
“They’re quality leaders, they’re good kids,” Jebbia said. “The kids look up to D.J. He’s going to take on more of a leadership role with those three seniors graduating (Vargo, Zimmerman and Morris). It’s tough to teach that leadership stuff, but he has it. He’s going to have to score a little bit more for us. He’s always been pass first and make the right play. I think we’ll be a little bit more spread around with the scoring.”
Along with a condensed schedule, the basketball field will be a little different now as there as four classes. With that, Park’s sectional is a little different now.
“There’s four classes now. Morgantown is now in our sectional,” Jebbia said. “I think we battled Morgantown in the regional three of the last four seasons. That won’t happen now because we could possibly see them in that sectional round.”
Brendan Richter (6-0) is the lone junior for Wheeling Park while Caleb Francis (6-4), Xander Gibson (5-11) and Brett Phillips (6-2) are the sophomores.
“Expectations for these guys is to have a good practice every single day because it’s a shortened season,” Jeebbia said. “It’s not going to be the traditional 22-game season, so just to really value each day we get to play. Our long-term goal is to get to that regional final, win that and advance to the state tournament. It’s realistic with this group of seniors. It’s going to look different and be at a different time of year. We just have to continue to be safe and follow the protocols.”
Jebbia is assisted by Gene Ammirante, Jerry Ammirante and Shaun Black.