Valley rises from the ashes
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You've come a long way, Valley.
The Greyhounds sure didn't resemble a state tournament team when the season began, but through hard work and perseverance they whipped themselves into shape and punched their ticket to Charleston for the first time in two decades.
Valley (13-7), the No. 7 seed in Class A, will take on No. 2 Wheeling Central (21-4) at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals at the Civic Center.
The Greyhounds, based in Smithers in Fayette County, last advanced to states in 1991 when the season was in the fall. Valley played in the first two Class AA state championship games in 1976 and 1977, losing each time, and has never made it back to the title round.
"I told the girls that I expected to make the state tournament,'' said Valley first-year coach Richie Cantrell. "I saw two or three of them looking at each other. They didn't think that I was serious.
"I'm learning a lot this year. [Assistant] Coach Jeff Minter and me, we call ourselves old-school coaches. We got back to fundamentals and the transition game. We didn't put in a whole lot of plays, just run the ones we do pretty good. That's been the season.''
Cantrell was presented with a bleak situation when practice opened in November. Many of his players were athletes and with not many basketball skills, and Cantrell and Minter had to start from scratch.
One of the first things Cantrell had to do was buy new basketballs since the 10 or so the school had for the girls were worn out. In addition, players had to wear uniforms that were several years old because there wasn't enough in Cantrell's razor-thin budget to buy new ones.
"We started out with girls that couldn't even make a layup at the beginning of the year and never shot before, but were very talented athletic-wise,'' Cantrell said. "We went back to fundamentals.
"First thing you had to [tell them] was which foot to jump off [for layups]. We had to start there then we had to go back to how you hold the ball when you shoot. We lost a lot of time with that.''
Valley won its first eight games and was among the top 10 in the Class A Associated Press poll for several weeks. The Greyhounds then dropped six of its last nine to close out the regular season and fall out of the rankings.
"We sort of camouflaged our weaknesses,'' said Cantrell, who had 25 players come out during signups then saw his roster dwindle to 10 by the end of the year. "I had a few girls quit because they didn't like the discipline and we had to start over.
"We had some learning to do and we dug in and changed our offense and defense and readjusted. We've shifted these girls to different positions and we can give teams multiple looks now.''
The Greyhounds lost in the sectional final to No. 8 Fayetteville but rebounded with a win at Tug Valley, a notoriously tough road trip, in the regional co-finals.
"I was so proud of them at Tug Valley,'' Cantrell said. "The things we talked about they did 90 percent efficient. They're hustling after balls. It's how you accomplish your goals at the end of the year. We're there.''
Senior guard Alexis Payne and sophomore guard Abby Buchan have been the heart and soul of the Greyhounds.
Payne, who surpassed 1,000 career points this season and averages 25.2 points, has been getting interest from the University of Charleston, West Virginia State and Marietta College in Ohio.
"She's learned to be a leader and a mentor,'' Cantrell said of Payne. "[She] encouraged our younger girls. One to 10, she's a 10-plus player. I think the biggest thing she learned is to keep her eye on the prize and not look in the past. See what we're going to do two or three plays from now. I think Marshall and West Virginia should take a look at her.''
Buchan, who adds 19.1 points per game, provides a perfect complement to Payne's slashing style.
"She's a natural shooter,'' Cantrell said of Buchan. "That's something you can't coach. She's progressively gotten better as the year's gone on.''
All in all, Cantrell said it's been a great ride.
"My goal was to get the girls down there [to Charleston for the state tournament],'' he said. "We have beaten some very good programs. You look at the kids that aren't there. As long as the girls can do the best they can, that's all we can expect of them. We are very appreciative to be there.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4811.