Charleston Catholic and Wheeling Central players fight for the ball during a game Friday night. The Fighting Irish, who have made the Class A state tournament eight straight years, are one of many teams in the Kanawha Valley struggling this year.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- GERALD BURGY had courtside seats for the golden age of girls basketball in the Kanawha Valley.
As former head coach of South Charleston, he boasted two Division I and future WNBA players in Alexis Hornbuckle and Renee Montgomery in 2003-04. And when the Black Eagles faced high-scoring Nitro, which featured another top-notch prospect in Megan Withrow (the state's Class AAA career scoring leader with 2,689 points), the stage was set for some of the largest crowds to watch girls basketball the state had ever seen.
"When we had that sectional game [in March 2004] we had to move it to the Civic Center and [5,709] people came to that game,'' said Burgy, who is now an assistant coach at SC. "They're were just so many good kids there, Division I kids. It helped girls basketball.
"[Younger kids] were wanting autographs. You would go to a middle school game and there were people everywhere. Everywhere you went there were kids in the park and there were girls shooting basketball with their dads.''
The Gazette even named girls basketball its Sportsman of the Year in 2004.
"We turned away about 700 or 800 people [in the season-opener at Eddie King Gym at the University of Charleston],'' said Burgy. "When you have 21 Division I coaches come to watch your kids play, that says a lot about the kids themselves.
"I think it put basketball back on West Virginia's map for girls. I think there was just a huge interest. People just came out. It was good basketball. They got up and down the floor and were athletic and good shooters.''
It seems like a distant memory now, when the girls game once captivated the Valley's sport scene. In the years since Hornbuckle and Montgomery won their last AAA state title together for SC in 2004, only two Kanawha Valley teams have won championships (Charleston Catholic and Winfield) in the state's three classes.
Hornbuckle and Montgomery went on to have stellar careers at the major college and pro levels. Hornbuckle helped Tennessee and legendary coach Pat Summitt win two national championships and captured a WNBA crown, while Montgomery led Connecticut to an undefeated season and a national title, then was the fourth overall pick in the WNBA Draft and earned all-rookie honors her first season.
Withrow went to a career at North Carolina Wilmington and Marshall, while Wildcats teammates Tara Hammond (Winthrop) and Keisha Tyler (Ohio University) also signed with Division I schools. Nitro's Ashleigh Huffman committed to Eastern Kentucky.
There has been talent in the following years coming out of the Valley - Capital twin sisters Shawnice and Shawnita Garland (Cleveland State), SC's Kaylyn Croser (Radford), Winfield's Karah Cloxton (Dayton), George Washington's Brittany Holestine (Ohio University and West Virginia University), Nitro's Kendra Wallace (South Carolina Upstate and High Point) and Charleston Catholic's Mackenzie Maier (High Point) - but those players mostly attended smaller Division I schools.
Just two schools from the Valley were ranked in last week's Associated Press polls - George Washington (AAA, No. 10) and Sissonville (AA, No. 7). And interest in the North-South girls basketball game, which was revived in 2003, waned so much that the event was discontinued in 2006 because of a lack of commitment from the top senior players.
"I think it's down all around from top to bottom,'' said George Washington coach Jamie LaMaster. "When I go and watch some middle school games now, I'm not sure it's watered way down from where it was five or six years ago. I don't know where the kids are.
"There are still some good players in this Valley that go on and play Division II basketball and maybe Division I. Every program has their bright spots, but I don't think we're seeing a lot of consistency right now. It's up for a while then it's down.''
No team from the Valley has won in AAA since the Black Eagles completed their run. In fact, SC is the only team from either Kanawha or Putnam County since to play for a championship in that class (2005, 2010 and 2011).
Winfield was the last team from the Valley in AA to win it all in 2006 and the last to play in it in 2007. Catholic holds that distinction in Class A, capturing a title in 2007 and last making it to the finals in 2009.
"I think some of the AAU programs are down a little bit,'' Burgy said. "It might be travel expenses and money. It's expensive to play AAU now especially with gas and hotel rooms. Not everybody can play AAU. Just our economy in itself is holding some people back.
"You don't get many sponsorships from companies to help you. Ten years ago there was AAU basketball and that was about it. Now there's travel volleyball, soccer and softball. These kids can play anything they want all year long if they want to. If you're traveling for soccer, you're committed to soccer. You only have three weeks to work with your kids [in the summer], too.''
LaMaster said coaches must compete for players with other sports from within their school's walls.
"I think it's just getting harder and harder to be an athlete,'' he said. "[Athletes are] beginning to specialize more and more. There's not enough talent in this Valley for kids to specialize. You can play your school season then you come right into offseason workouts and club ball season and that thing can go almost to the beginning of the next school season.
"These coaches convince them if you're going to play for me you're going to play club ball. These kids get sold this mentality. I think it hurts them. I would like to see the kids be a little more versatile. If we had kids that specialized we'd be in trouble. I've got some good-sized kids here at GW that only play other sports.''
LaMaster, who is in his 19th season as a high school or middle school coach, said he has to work around athletes' schedules or he risks losing that player.
"I don't want those kids to feel like they have to make a choice,'' said the GW coach, who has guided the Patriots to the AAA state semifinals the past two seasons. "I've had to, in the past, work with [them]. I've got to be flexible as a coach. If I put them in a position like that, I'll lose.
"I've had to cut deals and say, 'Let me know in advance and if we're having a Saturday practice and you have to go to Charlotte to a weekend tournament we can work this out.' Last weekend there was a big indoor soccer event at Cabell Midland and my practice was at 9 a.m. Monday and [my player] doesn't get home until 2 a.m. then gets back up and comes to my practice. I'd rather have them here 95 percent of the time than none at all. If I want them playing, that's the deal I have to work.''
Steve Ash, the coach of the DuPont Middle School girls team the past six years, encountered the same problems. Ash has also been a boys assistant coach at Riverside and an AAU coach.
"When I came to DuPont I had 56 girls a year tryout for basketball,'' he said. "Then when they start getting a little bit older and getting involved in specialty sports, their coaches tell them if you want the opportunity to get a college scholarship, you have to spend all of your time in this sport.
"It's really hurt. You get to Riverside and during the three weeks of summer practice [coach Scott Garretson] only had three freshmen. That's hard to survive that way. It takes away a lot of good athletes, kids that could really help your program.
"Some could be starters and others sixth or seventh men. That could really help your team. It seems back five or 10 years ago you had more teams of players out there. Basketball is a grind. It's a sport that you've got to work hard at it. There are a lot of things you have to do to be good at it.''
Ash said athletes are picking their best sport and sticking with it.
"I see a lot of players I know that could be excellent basketball players but aren't out playing basketball because they have other commitments,'' he said. "[They think] 'I may be OK in basketball, but I'm not sure I'm really good.' There's a lot of girls I know that play AAU basketball that don't even play for their [school] teams during the season.
"They feel they're going to get noticed playing during the summertime. I do believe there are influences out there telling them you can be noticed or obtain a college scholarship by playing travel sports instead of your regular season. It's just an uphill battle. I don't know if you'll ever overcome it. It's here to stay.''
LaMaster said he also sees a generational shift.
"I'm not sure the kids are held accountable from a parental standpoint,'' he said. "I think there's a little bit of entitlement going around today. Young kids come in and if they're not starting then [they'll] go somewhere else. It's so easy to quit. Once you begin quitting it becomes easier and easier."
Ash said he sees some help on the way.
"I have watched some teams and I'm really impressed with South Charleston Middle School,'' he said. "I've seen Charleston Catholic [Middle School] play and they have a couple of players I like. John Adams has four or five I really like. There are players around and I have noticed that when I do go out and watch AAU.''
Burgy said it simply might be timing.
"The talent's down, there's no question about that,'' he said. "The kids still play hard. There were just some great athletes that came through here at that time.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.