By Steve Keenan
It’s been pretty much a given that, when the boys state basketball tournament rolls around each March, Charleston Catholic will be heavily in the mix.
This season is no different.
The No. 3 seed Irish (19-6) stand in the way of the No. 6 Valley Greyhounds (22-3) as the state tournament unfolds this week at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum. The two squads meet at 9:30 a.m. Thursday to initiate the Class A portion of the state event.
The Irish have won 11 of their last 12 games since a three-game swoon in late January and early February that included setbacks to Poca, Wheeling Central and Bishop Donahue. Postseason victories have come over Buffalo, St. Joseph and Gilmer County, the latter a 74-43 verdict in the region co-final.
This weekend will mark the 10th straight state tournament in which Catholic has appeared.
The Irish advanced to the Class A championship game in eight of the nine previous campaigns, winning three titles (2006, 2007 and 2012). Under coach Bill McClanahan’s guidance, Charleston Catholic has been in the state tournament field in 11 of 13 seasons.
Valley, meanwhile, has enjoyed hardwood success in recent years, too, but this will be the first Greyhound appearance in Charleston since 2003-04. That squad, coached by Joby Groom, lost to Wheeling Central in the semifinals, capping a string of four VHS state appearances in a six-year period, including the Tom Sutherland-coached 1999 Class A runners-up.
After 2003-04, Valley suffered losses to Charleston Catholic in four successive section tournament finals.
“They’ve won it three or four times, and Coach McClanahan made the statement he was retiring,” said third-year Valley coach Joe McCoy. “All the pressure’s on Catholic, with their history of state tournaments, their coach retiring; they want to give their coach a going-away present.”
Catholic likes to control the game’s tempo, McCoy said. “They don’t turn the ball over, and they’re well-disciplined.”
One of the main keys for Valley, McCoy said, will be containing the Irish senior tandem of 5-foot-10 point guard Garret McCarty and 6-4 forward Nick George, who each score better than 18 points a game. Other Irish starters include 6-6 senior Patrick Hurlihy (8.9 ppg), 6-0 senior Russell Miller (8.3 ppg) and 6-0 sophomore Hayden McCarty (6.1 ppg).
“It’s been a learning process, a growing process,” said McClanahan, who will retire at season’s end. “Nick and Garret have matured to be team leaders, (leaving) the rest of those guys to develop and grow.”
Key Irish reserves include 6-3 senior Aaron Persily (5.8 ppg), 5-11 junior Rodger Burdette (1.8 ppg) and 5-10 junior Sam McKown (1.2 ppg).
Valley will counter with a balanced starting rotation that includes 6-0 senior Raeshawn Breckenridge (11.8 ppg), 5-9 senior Keyshawn Payne (6.4 ppg), 6-6 sophomore Zac Warden (17.1 ppg, 29 3s, 77.0 percent from the foul line), 5-7 sophomore Henry Barron-Houchins (14.0 ppg, 37 3s) and 6-4 sophomore Druw Bowen (10.4 ppg).
Warden and Bowen each average double-digits on the boards.
Top reserves include 5-10 senior Donte Wilkerson (3.2 ppg) and 6-0 freshman Tracy Conliffe (3.3 ppg).
Payne calls Catholic ‘real fundamentally sound.’
“They don’t make mistakes and get frustrated,” he said. “We’ll have to play fast and get in their heads.”
Payne, whose Greyhounds played the Irish in the regular season in his first two years before the series was discontinued, says he’s ‘really excited to play’ this weekend.
McClanahan said he’s impressed with Valley.
“They are quick. They are athletic. They have good skills,” he said. “They’re a nice, young basketball team … with a balance of strength and quickness. We’re going to have our hands full.”
To handle the ‘Hounds and stay on course for yet another state championship game appearance, Catholic must counter VHS with a three-pronged effort, McClanahan said. “We have to make sure we contain their transition. We have to keep them off the boards. And we have to try to contain at least some of their penetration.”
George is a four-year starter. He and McCarty were contributors in 2012 when the Irish defeated St. Marys 40-34 to capture the state title, and they were both in the starting lineup last year when they lost to Tug Valley 58-41 in the final.
“This group of seniors has seen the success of winning a championship and the pain of losing (in the final),” said McClanahan. “They understand how fragile it really is.
“You have to cherish the opportunities you have.”
The Greyhounds suffered an early-season loss to Midland Trail and fell on back-to-back nights to Tug Valley (42-39 on Feb. 21) and fellow state tourney participant Clay-Battelle (45-39 in the WVHIT final on Feb. 22).
They’ve won six straight since the Clay-Battelle outing.
Hoping to see his squad play as it did in dominating postseason wins over Meadow Bridge and Tug Valley and cash in on its own opportunities, McCoy says the key will be to play well early.
“If we come out and play like we did the last two ball games and keep that momentum, we’re going to be all right,” he said. “There are going to be some butterflies, but if we get through the first 2-3 minutes, we’ll be okay.”
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