MORGANTOWN — Just a quick glance at the numbers thus far for the undefeated University boys’ basketball team is all it takes to see why the Hawks are perched atop the WVSSAC rankings.
UHS hit the century mark three times already, holds teams below 45 points per game and has racked up a whopping 40-point average margin of victory.
But even those gaudy statistics don’t really tell the story, because what’s been most impressive about fourth-year coach Joe Schmidle’s team is the way the Hawks approach every trip up and down the floor.
Watching the 9-0 Hawks unleash their furiously composed brand of basketball — the in-your-face defensive pressure, every cut sharp and purposeful in their offensive sets, lanes filled and passes delivered right on time in transition — it’s clear that the game itself is probably meant to be played under complete control, but at the highest possible tempo — especially if you want to have as much fun as possible.
“Coach has always preached to us that he wants us to play strong and fast, but not too fast,” four-year starter Ethan Ridgeway said. “We want to speed up the game for the other team, push it all the time on both ends of the court, but if it’s not there, the steal or the fast break or whatever, then don’t force it. It keeps us out of foul trouble, and keeps our turnovers down. And that’s a big key to winning.”
But perhaps the best part of the Hawks’ style is their complete willingness to make the extra pass, find the open man, feed the hot hand.
And that kind of team chemistry has to start from the top, and at the beginning.
“These kids play with a lot of heart and a lot of love for each other,” Schmidle said, “and that’s something that you can’t teach, and you can’t force. It comes from playing together, fighting through tough times and believing in each other. And when a team truly comes together and plays for each other 100 percent, it’s really a beautiful thing.”
And make no mistake, there were hard lessons to learn early on in Schmidle’s tenure when it came to the culture of the program.
“When I started at University,” he said, choosing his metaphor quite deliberately, “the program had some … cancer. And so we performed some surgery, underwent some chemotherapy and started from scratch. We wanted everyone to know that we would be fair, and that everyone would get an equal chance. And basically it’s all come from there to where we are now, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Senior Clay Bailey, another four-year letterman under Schmidle, knows that, despite the growing pains, the Hawks are right where they want to be.
“It was tough at first,” Bailey admitted. “The older guys didn’t feel comfortable with a new system, and we struggled. But now, everyone pushes each other really hard in practice, because we know that’s the only way to get better, and we all work so hard to bring out the best in each other. Plus, we all know our roles, we know what we’re counted on to do.
“And,” he continued, “we’ve been playing together for so long, we know each other’s tendencies, how we’ll react under game conditions. It’s another reason why we play a pretty clean game considering how fast we play. There’s a lot of trust, and that makes everybody unselfish. In the end, all we want is the W.”
With a big seven-game road stretch ahead, the Hawks know the competitive thermostat is about to get cranked way up, but they relish the challenge.
“We know it’ll be tough to hold good teams under 50,” Schmidle explained, “and we won’t be scoring in the 80s as often. Believe me, we don’t care about style points, and we’ll take every win we can get. But you play sports to measure yourself against the best, to see how good you are and how good you can become. We’ve gotten better every year — from below .500 to .500 to 24 wins last year — and now we want to reach a higher level, the highest level. And we think we have a group that has a chance to get it done.”