Even though Huntington has played in the Class AAA title game each of the past three years, it might have been easy to overlook the Highlanders coming into this season.
After all, they lost four starters and 77 percent of the points from their 25-2 squad that fell by three points to unbeaten Morgantown in the state finals last March.
While they may look a bit different at this stage — trading a high-scoring offense for a more defensive approach — their success hasn’t changed.
They take a 4-1 record into Thursday’s home game against Spring Valley and the No. 5 ranking in the Class AAA state poll. The lone loss came to unbeaten Fairland, Ohio (10-0).
Last year, Huntington topped 70 points in 17 of its 27 starts. This season, it’s allowing an average of just 47.5 points in its four victories, including a 59-55 comeback win at South Charleston last week.
Three times in five games, the Highlanders have held opponents under 50 points. That happened just eight times in 27 games all last season.
Coach Ron Hess has built a contender around the talents of 6-foot-4 junior Mikal Dawson, who stands third in the Mountain State Athletic Conference in scoring at 23.2 points per game.
The other players all seem to know their roles. Point guard Jadon Hayes shoots only grudgingly, preferring to penetrate the foul lane and kick the ball to the wings to superior shooters such as Grant Subik and Andrew Shull.
Shull, a freshman, took all 10 of his shots from 3-point range against SC and made six for 18 points as the Highlanders rallied from 15 points down to lock up a victory. Subik was 2 of 3 from long range and tallied 10 points.
Senior Raekwon Saunders, the team’s tallest starter at 6-5, clogs up the middle. He donated nine points and eight rebounds off the bench versus SC, including two clutch free throws with 10 seconds left to ice it.
“This is a team that hasn’t played together,’’ Hess said, “so we’re still kind of learning how to play with each other and who does what.
“We’re learning and getting better. There’s no doubt we’re getting better.’’
Degree of difficulty
Playing an MSAC schedule is difficult enough over the course of a season, but for some teams the tough tests tend to come in bunches.
Take Capital and George Washington, for instance.
In a two-week stretch from Jan. 3-17, the Cougars face teams like Class AAA No. 9 South Charleston, co-No. 2 Woodrow Wilson, Mountain Mission Prep (Va.), No. 7 George Washington, First Love Christian (Pa.) and No. 5 Huntington. That’s four state-ranked AAA teams and two prep schools with national reputations.
For GW, hell weeks arrives Jan. 3-13 with dates against Woodrow Wilson, South Charleston and No. 1 Capital. Later in the season, a Jan. 27-Feb. 6 stretch finds games versus Kentucky’s Perry County Central (10-5), Woodrow Wilson, Capital and a repeat date with Wesley Christian, Ky. (18-6).
Patriots coach Rick Greene knows that he might have a very good team and still come out with a couple of Ls during either of those stretches.
“At that point, we’ll be 10 games into the season,’’ Greene said of his team’s first run through gauntlet, “and that’s what you’re looking for halfway in. We feel like we’ll know exactly where we are after 10 games.’’
Coaches 600 club
According to state sports historian Doug Huff of Wheeling, there are seven boys basketball coaches in West Virginia with at least 600 all-time wins:
*704 — Dave Rogers, Martinsburg
698 — Howard (Toddy) Loudin, Greenbrier
647 — Jerome Van Meter, Woodrow Wilson
627 — Allen Osborne, Poca
627 — Tom Yester, Morgantown
*626 — Mick Price, Ravenswood
611 — Sam Andy, Wheeling Park/Wheeling
*Still active; through Tuesday’s games
Celebrate good times
Capital enjoys playing a good game, and enjoys celebrating a good game. After shaking hands with opponents, the Cougars often gather at midcourt following a win to congratulate each other.
In their opener at home against Parkersburg, they even went as far as hamming it up together and posing for team pictures, something teams usually reserve for sectional or regional titles.
“That’s just the love we’ve got for each other, you know?’’ said junior wing Anthony Pittman. “We just always had a love for each other, and we always want to be together.’’