MORGANTOWN — University High boys’ basketball coach Joe Schmidle saw a glimpse of his team’s future this March, at the Charleston Civic Center.
The Hawks returned to the Class AAA state tournament for the second straight season, and drew crosstown rival Morgantown in round one. The Hawks had put down MHS on three occasions earlier in the season, but the Mohigans never went down easily. They were the last squad the Hawks wanted to see.
MHS came out swinging as expected, jumping ahead, 11-0. The Hawks needed a spark.
That’s when K.J. McClurg decided to take matters into his own hands.
McClurg exploded, dropping 14 points — second only to Kaden Metheny’s 23-point effort — while tallying three rebounds and two assists en route to a 70-51 victory for UHS.
He proved the performance was not a fluke the next night out, nabbing 11 points and six rebounds in a tough three-point semifinal loss, to Martinsburg.
“He played fantastic for us,” Schmidle said. “He made a bunch of 3-pointers and made some great plays for us. It showed he was ready to take it to another level.”
Fans and media present at the Civic Center were shocked by the performance — McClurg’s effort was the talk of the tournament. Schmidle, however, wasn’t surprised. He knew of McClurg’s work ethic and skill level. He knew such a breakout was just a matter of time.
“K.J. is a very driven and focused kid. He has tremendous work ethic,” Schmidle said. “He lives in the gymnasium as well as the weight room.”
McClurg said he made the trek to Charleston with just one focus — winning a state title — but the experience served well in helping him develop as a player.
“Going down to Charleston my sophomore year was amazing. The team wanted to achieve something that UHS has never done, and that was to win a state title,” he said. “We came up short, but as a player, I learned a lot from those games and I wouldn’t have traded those moments for anything.”
Of course, McClurg’s stout run in Charleston didn’t come without expectations. Fans will now have an eye on him, and how he plays this winter will determine if the hype is real.
Schmidle insists that it is, and that McClurg is expected to be one of the top two or three contributors for a team that loses four of its starting five to graduation.
“He would have started on almost any other team in West Virginia last year,” Schmidle said. “He will be an immediate impact player for us the next two years in a variety of ways.”
Schmidle also thinks that McClurg is well-equipped to handle the challenge that will come with such responsibility.
“His maturity level and significant minutes with varsity this past year will prove to be very valuable for himself as well as this team,” he said.
In McClurg’s eyes, it’s just his turn to follow in the footsteps of recent UHS greats such as Geoff Hamperian and Ethan Ridgeway — he’s learned lessons from the best, and now it’s time to put his wisdom to use.
“The seniors were amazing players and gave all they had to put the team in the best spot to win. I couldn’t have asked for any other players to lead me,” he said. “Now it’s my turn to lead the team to the state tournament and finish what we worked so hard for last year — a state championship.”