Local Sports, Morgantown, Sports

10 FOR 10: Mohigans’ run to 2016 title was driven by disappointment

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It all seemed poetic as Huntington guard Tavian Dunn-Martin’s layup cracked off the back of the rim and bounced away into the waiting arms of Kenzie Melko, giving the Morgantown boys’ basketball program its first state championship in its storied history.

The 2016 Mohigans erased a nine-point fourth quarter deficit in the state title game against the Highlanders, before eventually winning 64-62 in overtime, capping off an undefeated 27-0 season — the first unbeaten season by any boys’ team in 31 years.

“When Kenzie pulled down that rebound, I just remember watching the kids jump for joy and hug each other,” coach Dave Tallman said. “That’s what it’s all about … getting to watch your guys experience something that can never be taken from them.”

With four seniors in the starting lineup — all of which signed to play college basketball — they walked away as champions, something they all made a pact to do after one of the worst nights of their high school careers.

A new era

Tom Yester was with Morgantown basketball for 32 years and took the Mohigans to 15 state tournaments and appeared in seven state semifinals, while bringing in 629 wins during that span. Yester also coached five players to first team all-state honors, but the Mohigans never seemed to be able to get the “big one” during his tenure.

Following a 15-11 season in 2013-14 — which had its fair share of controversy for Yester after he was suspended three games for allegedly putting his hands on a player — Yester decided to resign his post, leaving big shoes to fill.

Enter Tallman, who was looking for an opportunity back in his native West Virginia after he spent the last 10 seasons at St. Mary’s Ryken, in Leonardtown, Md. Having coached former WVU forward John Flowers and current Atlanta Hawks guard Treveon Graham, as well as coached against the likes of Kevin Durant, Victor Oladipo and Quinn Cook, Tallman just wanted to bring his family back home.

Tallman, coached by his father, Dave Tallman Sr., helped Magnolia win the Class AA state championship in 2000, so coaching was in his blood. When the job at MHS opened up, it was intriguing since the school had ever won a state title.

In May 2014, Tallman was approved by the Monongalia County Board of Education to take over the Mohigans. Soon after, he circled a specific date on his calendar — March 21, 2015.

“That’s the day of the Class AAA state championship next year,” Tallman said. “It would be neat if me and my dad are both coaching at the tournament, but I definitely want our ultimate goal to be playing for a state championship.”

High expectations ends in bitter disappointment

Tallman took over a squad that did reach the state tournament before falling to in the first round, and was expected to have three returning starters and nearly eight players who fit into the rotation the year prior.

However, despite all the talent the Mohigans had, there were clear evidence some things needed changed.

“When I got here. I saw we had a lot of talent, but their commitment to working and working together wasn’t up to par,” Tallman said. “We had to change the mindset. Seniors like CJ King, Tyler Shipley and Stone Wolfley bought in 100%, but it took us a year to get everyone all in.”

For juniors at the time, like Steven Solomon and Melko, there was definitely a learning curve moving from Yester, who they played under for two years, to Tallman.

“It was an adjustment, breaking old habits and developing new ones,” Solomon said. “But coach Tallman was patient with us and we eventually started to get on the same page.”

Melko, on the other hand, felt from an X’s and O’s standpoint that the change was going to benefit him in the long run.

“The transition was really easy for me,” he said. “I was a junior in Tallman’s first season and he just showed his confidence in me from Day 1. He put the team in our hands and let us play our games. For me, especially, his style complimented my game much more than Yester’s style did, so it was best case scenario for me.”

The Mohigans won 20 games in 2014-15, winning Region I, Section 2 and earning the right to host Section 1 loser Parkersburg in the regional co-final with a chance at a state tournament berth.

“The guys were great,” Tallman said. “We had a lot of great personalities and CJ King was a big time player for us. He was unstoppable. It just took us a year to get everyone fully bought in to what we were doing. The majority of the guys were great.

“We had a great season, but Parkersburg played lights out that one night.”

The Big Reds played lights out for the first three quarters and as MHS tried to come back in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t enough, and Tallman’s lofty goal of getting to the Class AAA title game in Year 1 fell way short.

“That was probably the hardest day of my basketball career,” Melko said. “I just remember after the final buzzer, I just broke down. But that feeling motivated me in the offseason and really was the catalyst to my senior year.”

With his first season finished, ending in disappointment, Tallman knew he was going to have a loaded senior class for the next season ready to get the bitter taste out of their mouths.

“That regional upset loss to Parkersburg was a major wake up call to the guys coming back.” he said. “We missed a lot of box outs and small things that night that killed us. I still feel horrible for those seniors. but it definitely fueled our focus and attention to detail the next year.”

The perfect fit

Losing the likes of King would be tough for anyone after a first team all-state performance as a senior, but with the personnel the Mohigans had back in 2015-16, the starting five was all but set before preseason practice even began.

With four seniors, each fit a standard position in a starting five to a T — Antonio Morgano at shooting guard, Solomon at small forward, Melko at power forward and Elvin McNally at center.

Junior Nicky Solomon, Steven’s younger brother, was also a rough and tumble, hard-nosed point guard who was a perfect fit for what Tallman wanted to do schematically.

“Nicky was our point guard and leading rebounder. He was our guy who had a ton of toughness and guts,” Tallman said. “Antonio was our defensive stopper. We don’t win without him taking away the other teams best player. Steven was probably the best player in the state. He made huge plays when we needed them the most. He was our go-to guy.

“Kenzie was our athlete. That kid could fly. He also locked down on defense and during the state tournament, he averaged a double-double. He wasn’t going to let us lose. Elvin was our man in the middle who was very skilled. Elvin was one of the guys who wasn’t fully bought in the previous year, but he sure was in 2016. He was terrific for us.”

While the bench wasn’t deep, junior guard Torin Hanson and freshman center Nick Malone were critical for depth reasons. While Morgano could certainly shoot, Hanson was the more well-rounded offensive option and had a stellar stretch in the title game with eight points in three minutes during the second quarter, while Malone’s size was needed in the post when McNally was out of the game.

Deon Agnew was a reliable option when called upon, but his presence on the bench as a great teammate was invaluable, according to Tallman.
The team had all the makings of being special, and the seniors knew it was their final shot at winning the whole thing.

“We were all very skilled — could shoot, pass and dribble — and we were so close off the court that year,” Steven Solomon said. “We just knew how to play well together on the court. I think we all wanted to win so bad we were willing to do whatever we needed to for each other.”

Getting it done

The regular season unfolded exactly the way the Mohigans hoped. The closest anyone got to beating MHS was Wheeling Park, who still lost by two points on its home floor. Of their 24 wins ahead of the state tournament, only three were decided by single digits.

The entire schedule was made up of Class AAA teams, and prior to the state tournament, the Mohigans wrapped up Shootout at the Big House, OVAC, sectional and regional tournament titles.

A 5-point win in late February at Martinsburg seemed like a great road victory at the time, however Tallman said it may have been the wake-up call the team needed to refocus for the home stretch.

“We were up 20-plus in the second half and they went to their full-court pressure, had their hands all over us,” Tallman said. “We blew the lead. I think they tied it up and we had to find a way to win. I was happy we won, but very frustrated with how we didn’t finish them off. We walked off the floor and our fans were high-fiving and congratulating us. In the locker room was a different story. We knew not handling their pressure could cost us. The coaches let the players have it. They were shocked we weren’t happy but we let them know, ‘No it wasn’t good enough to achieve what we wanted to achieve.’

“One of the coaches may or may not have busted a clipboard after the game. We had higher expectations.”

At the state tournament, MHS knocked off Hurricane and Woodrow Wilson in the quarterfinals and semifinals, and it seemed destined to face Huntington from the start.

The Highlanders won the last two state titles, and they, along with MHS, were No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll throughout most of the season. The Mohigans had wins over state tournament teams Woodrow Wilson, Capital, Parkersburg South (twice), Martinsburg (twice) and Hurricane, but knew they’d be criticized if they never got a chance to beat Huntington.

The morning of title game March 19, the team went out for breakfast at the Shoney’s on Kanawha Boulevard in Charleston, two blocks from the Civic Center. Assistant coach Stevie Sutherland caught Tallman’s attention and pointed to a booth against the wall.

All five of his starters — Nicky Solomon, Morgano, Steven Solomon, Melko and McNally — were squeezed as tight as they could be into one booth.

“I remember coach Stevie Sutherland say to me, ‘Hey coach, we’re going to be just fine tonight. I turn around and see them all squeezed into one booth. They had to do everything together during our run.”

The aftermath

The Mohigans made history, but all turned their team success into individual accomplishments.

Steven Solomon signed with Wichita State as a preferred walk-on before transferring home to play at Fairmont State, where he will enter his senior season this fall.

Melko signed with the Falcons out of high school and redshirted his freshman year in 2016-17. Since, he’s started 89 games in his career and will finish it out, along with Solomon, this season.

Antonio Morgano walked on the men’s team at Ole Miss in the SEC, while McNally signed to play at Glenville State.

Nicky Solomon, Hanson, Malone and Agnew helped the Mohigans reach the state semifinals the following season in 2017. Malone is currently on the WVU football team as a preferred walk-on offensive lineman.

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