CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This year's state tournament has given new credence to the phrase, "pick on someone your own size."That's exactly what a handful of schools have done after dropping in classification this season.Class AA best illustrated this trend as three of the four semifinalists - Fairmont Senior, Robert C. Byrd, and Bridgeport - were in Class AAA last season. Add in No. 8 North Marion, which fell in the first round to Bluefield, and exactly half of the Class AA field was made up of schools that made the switch downward.Class AA isn't the only place to see the effects of reclassification as the top two seeds in Class A were also schools that dropped down a level.With a semifinal win on Friday, No. 1 Tug Valley became the first team in 48 years to win a championship (AA last year), then play for a title in a different class the following season. Williamson took the AA crown in 1964 and brought an unbeaten record into the 1965 AAA finals, but lost to Woodrow Wilson 69-67.Class A No. 2 Magnolia fell in the first round to No. 7 Wheeling Central and the Blue Eagles were in the state tournament in Class AA last year, falling to Tolsia in the first round.Panhandling for goldIf it seems like Eastern Panhandle schools have been dominating the high-profile Class AAA sports recently, well, it's because they are.During the last five school years (2008-09 to present), Martinsburg has captured three football championships, Jefferson and Martinsburg have taken baseball crowns and tonight, with Martinsburg playing in the boys basketball finals, it gives the EP a chance to win a third title in that sport.Hedgesville emerged as the AAA basketball champ last March, three years after Martinsburg prevailed at the Civic Center in 2009."You've got to remember,'' said Martinsburg coach Dave Rogers, "that 10, 12 years ago Berkeley County was the 10th largest county in population of students, and now we're No. 2 to Kanawha, and our enrollment just keeps going up. We open up a fourth high school in the county, Spring Mills, next year and we're all triple-A."The growth is there in the Eastern Panhandle, being so close to D.C. and Baltimore. There's never a year where we don't have growth. It's not like it was, and it's going to continue to grow, no question about that. The programs are good, the community's good and the city of Martinsburg is into the youth. They help us any way they can when we ask them. It's a nice play to live.''Second chance for Irish
One of today's three championships brings about a rematch of a regular-season game, that one coming in Class A when Tug Valley takes on Charleston Catholic.On Feb. 13, Tug routed Catholic 61-38 at the Civic Center, holding the Irish to 30 percent shooting, forcing 15 turnovers and limiting them to their lowest point total in three years.
Irish coach Bill McClanahan was not present for that game, one of three he was forced to miss because of obligations with his job as an IT manager.Mikey Newsome tallied 23 points and Austin Brewer 18 (with eight rebounds) for the Panthers that night.Monster mashCharleston Catholic's Zach Casto is making the most of his chances.The 6-foot-2 senior forward turned in his second straight double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds to help the No. 3 and defending state champion Irish defeated No. 7 Wheeling Central 61-55 Friday morning in the Class A semifinals.
Catholic (24-3) will play in the championship game at noon today against No. 1 Tug Valley. The Irish will be playing in their eighth title game in the last nine years, with championships in 2006, 2007 and 2012.
Casto turned in 17 points and 10 boards in a 61-48 win over Buffalo in the quarterfinals."Just to play hard and tough because my time is limited so I'm going to leave it all out on the court,'' said Casto of his mindset."Our coaches have made it a standard to make it to the state tournament every year. To play tough and we establish that by playing good defense, efficient offense and we hit the boards hard. This team has really gotten that. We're playing really hard.''McClanahan said Casto has grown in his four years in the program."Zach's playing like a monster,'' said the Irish coach. "He really is. When Zach first came in the program he thought it was cool to shoot the basketball and that's all he did."He and I had an understanding that he needed to work on some other things. More importantly, he did it, and to Zach's credit he plays defense and he rebounds. He's seeing the fruits of his labor. I have nothing but great compliments and great pleasure in watching Zach's success.''Central castingWheeling Central's surprising run through this year's state tournament should be a harbinger of things to come.The No. 7 Maroon Knights (14-13) bounced No. 2 Magnolia in the Class A quarterfinals, then gave No. 3 and defending state champion Charleston Catholic a tough game before falling in Friday's semifinals.Central returns its leading scorer, 6-foot-2 freshman Chase Harler, and the team's second-leading point producer, junior David Park. Juniors Thomas Stanley and Alonzo Manns also received extensive playing time Friday against the Irish. "Nobody expected us to get here, but we did so they got a little taste of what it's like,'' said Central coach Mel Stephens. "Give them a little motivation in the offseason to work hard to try and get back down here again.''Stephens said Harler is a special talent."He's well beyond his years in basketball just in court sense and that kind of stuff,'' said the Central coach. "The nice thing about our team, he was able to come in from Day 1 and the older guys on the team were willing to accept him. That speaks volumes for those guys. He's blended right in with them.''What's in a nickname?The state tournament is always a good time to get to know a little more about some of the players you may not have heard much about before. One such player at this year's tournament is Fairmont Senior sophomore Tavon Horton, who came off the bench to provide a spark with five points, three assists and two steals in the Polar Bears' 65-58 win against Bridgeport in the Class AA semifinals.When Polar Bears coach David Retton was asked about Horton's play, Retton referred to Horton as "Butters," and deferred to Horton's older brother and teammate Travon Horton for the story behind the origin of the name."Me and my twin, when we were little we couldn't say 'brother,'" the older Horton said. "And it was like 'butter' so it stuck with him the whole time."The big brother said the little brother, who at 5-foot-6 is often the shortest player on the court, is more than just a one-game wonder."He rebounds, he plays defense," he said. "He hustles every play."