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Poca-Fairmont Senior

Fairmont Senior’s Jaelin Johnson is one of several state player of the year candidates who will be playing in the boys state tournament this week.

For more months than they’d like, boys basketball fans all across West Virginia have hungered for their favorite time of year — the state tournament. When COVID-19 shut down last season’s event, it interrupted a string of 106 years of crowning state champions on the court.

Well, after such a long wait, fans can again flock to the Charleston Coliseum this week. And if they want more for their money, they’ve come to the right place.

For the first time, the state will determine four champions when the games begin Tuesday morning in downtown Charleston. The Secondary School Activities Commission has implemented a two-year trial run of four classes in boys and girls basketball, which means five days instead of four and 28 games rather than 21 at the state tournament.

Play begins Tuesday with four Class A quarterfinals, with the state’s longest winning streak on display in the very first game as Pendleton County takes on Greenbrier West at 9:30 a.m. The Wildcats have won 38 in a row, going 18-0 so far this season and were 20-0 when postseason play was canceled last year.

There will also be a pair of Class AA quarterfinals on Tuesday’s card, with Clay County meeting Chapmanville at 11:15 a.m. in the first AA bout. Chapmanville is technically the two-time defending state champ, since it won back-to-back titles in 2018-19 before last year’s pandemic stop.

Some other points of interest in this year’s tournament:

Long absences: Hampshire (AAA) and Ritchie County (AA) make their first appearances at the state’s showtime event. Others teams ending long absences are Shady Spring (1994) and Nitro (1999) in AAA, Moorefield (2001) and Clay County (2006) in AA, and Cameron (1926) in Class A. The Dragons played three times in the 1920s when the tourney was played at the old West Virginia Wesleyan Gym in Buckhannon.

Top players: Three athletes considered among the front-runners for the state’s player of the year award will be on hand — in AAA, Fairmont Senior’s Jaelin Johnson (23.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists per game) and Robert C. Byrd’s Bryson Lucas (17.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists) and, in AA, Poca’s Isaac McKneely (22.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists). Notre Dame and standout Jaidyn West didn’t make the AAA field.

n Top teams: Most of the teams at the top of the final state polls are present and accounted for, including the top six in AAAA, the top five in AAA, and four of the top five in both AA and A. All four No. 1-ranked teams made it — Morgantown (AAAA), RCB (AAA), Williamstown (AA) and Man (A). The Hillbillies are back in town for the first time since 2012.

Behind the 8-ball: The four teams seeded No. 8 in this year’s tournament are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to advancing to the second round, since it’s never been done since the SSAC adopted a coaches seeding format in 2005. Teams seeded No. 8 are a combined 0-45 since then. This year, those teams are Woodrow Wilson (AAAA), Hampshire (AAA), Moorefield (AA) and Tucker County (A).

Class AAAA

This division, now the largest in West Virginia, begins play on Thursday with No. 3 seed Martinsburg against No. 6 Cabell Midland at 9:30 a.m.

Other games that day are No. 2 George Washington versus No. 7 Jefferson at 1 p.m., No. 1 Morgantown against No. 8 Woodrow Wilson at 5:30 p.m. and No. 4 Huntington versus No. 5 University at 9 p.m. University took the 2019 AAA title before the classifications were restructured.

“It should be a very balanced and great state tournament,’’ said veteran GW coach Rick Greene. “Martinsburg’s good, Jefferson’s good, so are University and Morgantown. And we know our conference people and Woodrow are good.’’

GW, Midland and Huntington are all members of the Mountain State Athletic Conference and Woodrow Wilson was until this season. Woodrow also handed GW (14-1) its lone loss this season.

Class AAA

All four quarterfinals are scheduled for Wednesday, leading off with No. 3 seed Shady Spring against No. 6 Herbert Hoover. The Huskies are making just their second state tournament appearance, with the other in 2017.

The rest of the AAA games find No. 2 Fairmont Senior meeting No. 7 Winfield at 1 p.m., No. 1 Robert C. Byrd versus No. 8 Hampshire at 5:30 p.m. and No. 4 Nitro against No. 5 Wheeling Central at 9 p.m.

Class AA

The first-round games in this division are split over two days. After Clay and Chapmanville get AA started Tuesday morning, No. 1 Williamstown meets No. 8 Moorefield at 7:15 p.m.

On Wednesday, No. 3 Charleston Catholic plays No. 6 Ritchie County at 11:15 a.m. and No. 2 Poca matches up with No. 7 Bluefield at 7:15 p.m.

McKneely, a junior guard who has committed to the University of Virginia, said he’s not concerned with putting on a show for those in attendance, or to perhaps pad his resume for the player of the year award. He’s just as willing to pass 25 times as shoot 25 times.

“I’m here to win a state championship,’’ McKneely said. “That’s what I’m here to do, that what I’ve got to do. Whatever I need to do to win, I’m willing to do that. I just want to win.’’

Class A

All four quarterfinals are set for Tuesday, leading off with No. 3 seed Pendleton versus No. 6 Greenbrier West.

The remainder of Tuesday’s games feature No. 2 Tug Valley against No. 7 Cameron at 1 p.m., No. 1 Man versus No. 8 Tucker County at 5:30 p.m. and No. 4 Webster County meeting No. 5 Clay-Battelle at 9 p.m. Webster was the 2019 titlist the last time the state tournament was held.

Contact Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or Follow him on Twitter @RickRyanWV.

Preps Sports Reporter