Local Sports, Sports

COLUMN: Too early to tell: Morgantown-area high school basketball edition

The last time I shared my opinion on winter sports athletes returning, I noted the worry I had for the student-athletes who were always just one positive test away from falling behind their peers. At that time, the University High boys’ basketball and wrestling teams had been put on hold after someone within the program tested positive for COVID-19. 

Shortly after writing that, the UHS athletes started getting back to work, but around the same time, the Morgantown High girls’ basketball team had to quarantine after a player tested positive. 

Seeing that break across Twitter by my sports editor was disheartening. 

Still, to hear from one of the players when I interviewed her for a story that, essentially, “This is the world we live in now and we’ll overcome,” brought my spirits back up. And this column isn’t meant to be a doom-and-gloom piece, but rather, a second part to that weary welcome-back I wrote the week practices opened in mid-February. Think of this as my outlook on the season and how the first week of games should give us a good glimpse of what we’ll see in this strange season. 

So, now, welcome to the first week of games. It’s an exciting week for local teams as they finally suit up for a full contest, and there’s a lot to look out for. Allow me to start with the MHS boys’ basketball team. 

The year of the Mohigans?

Personally, I believe this season could be special for Dave Tallman and his team. Regardless of who wins the 4A state title, it will be a history-making year, especially in the face of the crunched season. I think Morgantown has a shot to be the first-ever 4A champion, as they’re deep and are well-rounded in the talent department. Carson Poffenberger and Xavier Pryor are going to be the two guys to watch, and two of the remaining big names from last season in the new classification. It’s not going to be a cakewalk, though. There are still a lot of hurdles between them and the plaque, so don’t get it twisted, but of any time in the last few seasons, this year could be theirs. 

I get to cover their season-opening game Friday, March 5, too, against a team I’m very fond of and miss dearly, Washington. I cut my sports-writing teeth in Jefferson County, and word is the Patriots could be a sleeper this year led by second-year coach Trent Hilliard. Washington may have struggled in Hilliard’s first year, but with a group of tall, physical seniors like Tre Jackson, Jaylen Pooler and Jaylen Wright, Friday will be a litmus test for WHS. If it beats the fifth-ranked Mohigans, it could put it on the map heading into a season where three EPAC teams are currently in the state’s AP top 10. Not to mention, MHS defeated Robert C. Byrd in a scrimmage last week, and while that doesn’t hold much weight, RCB is the top-ranked team in triple-A. Just some food for thought. 

New changes, new outlooks

The other teams that kick off their season this week are Trinity (boys play at Madonna on Friday, March 5, girls host Notre Dame on Wednesday, March 3), Clay-Battelle (both on Friday, girls go to Linsly and boys host Tygarts Valley) and the UHS girls, who hit the road to face John Marshall on Thursday. It’s a great opening slate for these teams. 

I’ll be at the Trinity girls’ game, as Jaclyn Smith and Maggie Mercure look to open up a season with big promise for both of them. While the girls have a similar slate to previous seasons, the boys will have a lot to prove as they advance into the 3A field. When John Fowkes was coaching them they had giant-killer potential, but with administrative shakeups at the school, plus a lot of transfers out of the program, Rick Hill will now step into his inaugural season as the boys’ head coach with a nearly clean slate. The team still has solid players, but it is concerning looking from the outside in. 

The UHS girls’ team looks radically different, too. The Hawks are much shorter, but despite that, the current roster isn’t one that raises alarm bells. I have faith that once the girls get a few games in and make the system their own, they should be sneaking back into the playoff picture. Their biggest challenge will be No. 5 Morgantown, even though they’re currently on hold. With Kaitlyn Ammons down low and three excellent shooters in Berit Johnson, Cat Wassick and Reece Moore, plus a deep bench that includes Revaya Sweeney, Lindsay Bechtel, Kerrington Peasak and Mia Henkins, MHS could be the team to beat in the north. It will all depend on how No. 3 Wheeling Park shakes out. 

Further, the UHS boys’ team, ranked No. 8 in the preseason poll, will have a tall task ahead this season. I think it will take a few games for the Hawks to truly get back into the swing of things, but don’t underestimate Joe Schmidle’s ability to rear a team’s mistakes and correct them quickly. The Hawks are led by Ryan Niceler and Aaron Forbes, two physical big men who are tough to stymie, but the big question mark is: How will the guard play look? Clearly, the talking point in Morgantown the last few years has been the Kaden-K.J. saga — as it should have been — and many people will say that without them the Hawks have a gaping wound. I don’t think that’s the case. Two players don’t make a team, despite their talent. I think the wound here is missing two weeks of practice as soon as it opened, but to doubt the versatility of Schmidle and his guys is a mistake. 

Last but not least, we have the Cee-Bees. One of the teams that gets the least amount of attention and needs to be part of the conversation is the boys. Coming in at No. 7 in the preseason poll is fair, but it wouldn’t shock me if they’re in the top three come playoff time. Josh Kisner has built something excellent in Blacksville, and this year Clay-Battelle has a solid chance to make a deep run at the single-A title. Plus, with other teams moving up to 2A, there’s a vacuum that needs to be filled in the lowest class. The girls’ team looks to be shaping up well, too. With Liv Ammons at the helm, C-B can improve upon last year and put a stamp on this revamped classification. Linsly will be a good team to open with. 

All of this may become moot three weeks in, or they could be great predictions. That’s the beauty of sports, especially high school sports, where anything can happen and anyone can rise to the top. Throw COVID-19 into the mix, and, well, you never know. 

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