All signs in Class AAA are pointing to a dramatic run to a state girls basketball title.
The same 10 teams fill out the top 10 in the latest AP poll released Monday, meaning there is at least a general consensus on who are the best 10 teams among big schools. Yet within that top 10, voters are largely throwing darts in the dark.
In most years, especially on the girls side, an overwhelming favorite tends to develop by the middle of the season. Even in years where more than one contender emerged, it has hardly ever been more than a couple, maybe three.
Looking at results thus far, one could make a case that all of the top 10 teams in the state are a threat to win it all in March. Look no further than No. 9 Huntington conquering No. 1 Wheeling Park last week (the Highlanders were 10th a week ago). And that’s just one of numerous examples.
“I’ve seen years where there was definitely one team and everybody else was playing for second,” Jamie LaMaster, in his 15th season at George Washington, said. “There’s been years were a couple of teams were great and you were just kind of waiting for them to meet in the state tournament. But I’ve never seen a year like this year.”
LaMaster’s Patriots are another prime example. No. 6 GW owns wins over the Highlanders and No. 5 Woodrow Wilson. Huntington beat Park, who beat GW 75-59 on Saturday and the Flying Eagles dispatched of No. 3 Greenbrier East on Saturday. That same East team defeated GW by six points earlier this season.
Every team in the top 10 has its share of big wins and close losses with a head-scratcher or two thrown in for good measure. The number of quality teams in the classification has also set up some brutal stretches of games, especially in the Mountain State Athletic Conference where six of the top 10 reside, including two-time, defending state champion Parkersburg, ranked fourth this week.
GW for example will play a crucial home game against No. 8 South Charleston on Tuesday and follow it up with two games at the Big Atlantic Classic this week, the first against Class A No. 2 Summers County and then the winner of Morgantown and Woodrow. After that? At No. 2 Cabell Midland, at Parkersburg and against newly-minted Class AA No. 1 Winfield. The Black Eagles are in a similar stretch, following Tuesday’s showdown with a game at Hurricane and then consecutive road contests against Winfield, Huntington and Woodrow.
Quite simply, there’s nowhere to hide.
“With teams this evenly matched, you can’t put focus on any one team or any one aspect of the game,” LaMaster said. “You have to prepare for what your team is doing and you have to be ready every night.”
Making Tuesday’s game even more crucial is the status of Class AAA Region 3. That’s where Woodrow, East, GW and SC reside with the Black Eagles and Patriots in Section 1 and the Flying Eagles and Spartans in Section 2. Should those two advance through sectional semifinals where all will be heavy favorites, it will eventually set up do-or-die regional co-finals with the winners heading to the state tournament and the losers turning in their uniforms.
Tuesday’s game will be the lone matchup between GW and SC this year. With sectional seeding coming down to a vote among region coaches, the outcome of the game is a safe bet to go a long way toward determining which of the two gets the top seed and with it, coveted homecourt advantage in a potential sectional final showdown between the two.
“Some coaches look at the regular season as a 22-game practice season, but especially this year, it is and it isn’t,” LaMaster said. “You’re looking at positioning in the MSAC and a lot of times when it comes to voting on sectional seeding, coaches can look at records and not necessarily the body of work that went into it.”
Speaking of that MSAC race, Parkersburg and GW are currently first and second respectively with 5-0 league records, but half of the conference slate to go. Behind them is Midland with one loss and then Woodrow and SC with two.
All of the top seven teams at least have four games remaining and while the battle for league supremacy could be enthralling, it may only be a precursor to what happens at the Charleston Coliseum in March.
Martinsburg moved from No. 9 to No. 7 with University falling from seventh to 10th to complete the rankings.
NEW NO. 1 IN CLASS AA
The biggest shakeup in the poll, however, came in Class AA where after steadily climbing throughout the early part of the season, Winfield finally ascended to the top of the heap, earning eight of 10 first-place votes to supplant North Marion.
The Huskies fell in a one-point game last week to Martinsburg with the Generals earning a 10-point victory over No. 8 Lincoln on a neutral floor and a 23-point win over No. 4 Wayne.
After defeating the Pioneers, Generals point guard ZZ Russell resisted speculating on whether or not her team deserved the state’s top ranking. But coach Kelsey Spang admitted that it would be a nice feather in her team’s cap and pointed to the Lincoln win at a showcase event at East Fairmont as a big boost in terms of statewide perception.
“Absolutely it means something,” Spang said. “I think going up to Fairmont and putting on a good show was huge. We got to see other teams that we’re not used to seeing, but they also got to see us. So we are able to play on different courts and with different refs that we’re not used to. I think that getting a diversity of teams we play that we might see come the postseason, that’s only going to help.”
The Huskies dropped back No. 2 with Frankfort, Wayne and Fairmont Senior completing the top five.
IRISH REWARDED FOR BIG WEEK
New to the poll this week is Charleston Catholic, which checked in at No. 10 in the Class A rankings for the first time all year.
The Irish were likely rewarded for a monster week in which the team reeled off consecutive victories over Notre Dame, Wheeling Central and Madonna running its win streak to five and pushing its record to 10-5.
Catholic’s postseason fate will rely on how far the team can come between now and then as a rugged region featuring No. 2 Summers County and No. 4 Pocahontas County awaits. But it isn’t unlike the Irish to blossom late and sneak up on higher-ranked competition. Just two seasons ago, Catholic entered the postseason as a four seed in its own section only to rip off consecutive wins on the road to host a regional co-final, one it won over Meadow Bridge to advance to the state tournament.
Coach Wes Hevener is certainly not ruling out such a run again and likes the trajectory his team is on.
“We tell the girls all the time that you don’t make the state tournament in December, you make the state tournament in February,” Hevener said. “Wins are important, but the result — how did we play? Are we getting better? Are we cutting down on mistakes? I think we’re taking really good steps to becoming a well-balanced, well-rounded team. Practices have been very spirited. The girls come in and work really hard and I think you’re seeing that.”
St. Joseph remained the unanimous No. 1 with Summers, Parkersburg Catholic, Pocahontas County and Gilmer County rounding out the small-school top five.
THOMASON’S OUTPUT A RECORD? MAYBE
The curse of West Virginia’s historically sketchy record keeping in girls sport struck again this week.
Mingo Central’s Scarlett Thomason turned in what may be the best shooting performance in the history of the state, stroking 13 of 26 3-pointers in an 84-45 drubbing of Man on Saturday. She scored 42 points in the game and 18 on the strength of six more 3s in a win over Tug Valley in the game prior.
The boys 3-point record for a game is 12, set by Parkersburg South’s Chase Fieler but whether or not Thomason’s mark constitutes a girls state record is up in the air. Doug Huff, state sports historian and secretary/treasurer of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, was set to look into the matter on Monday, a process that could take a couple of days.
So for now, Thomason will have to settle for a little newspaper recognition and of course, a nice win over the Hillbillies.