The Midland Trail Patriots are shown after beating Shady Spring in a Class AAA Region 3 co-final to advance to this week's girls state tournament.

John Mark Kincaid doesn't fully embrace the methodology of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission's two-year, four-classification trial for basketball, and he says his Midland Trail girls team should still be a Class A program despite its proximity to the Fayette County seat of Fayetteville.

"I like the four divisions," he said. The teams, however, should be classified strictly on enrollment, Kincaid said. In addition to school enrollment, socioeconomic and geographic factors are also in the equation.

Nevertheless, Kincaid's Patriots are currently in the Class AAA ranks, and they've enjoyed success this year despite his misgivings. So much, in fact, that they find themselves in this week's triple-A field in the 2021 WVSSAC Girls High School Basketball Tournament at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center. No. 6 seed Midland Trail (8-1) will tangle with No. 3 Nitro (15-1) at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 28 in a quarterfinal game.

Choosing to play in AAA instead of AA in the two-year trial program was "probably the best thing to happen to us," said Kincaid. Schools had the option of playing up one level higher than their projected level, which, in Midland Trail's case, was Class AA.

Kincaid said he made some changes as the postseason arrived by moving personnel around, including placing 5-foot-10 senior strong forward Jolee Stephenson at center and moving 5-11 junior power forward Meghan Gill to a wing and "putting the ball in Emily Dickerson's hands."

Dickerson, a 5-5 senior bound for WVU Tech, leads the Midland Trail scoring attack at 18.5 points per game. Other starters include Gill (7.8 ppg), Stephenson (6.6), 5-9 senior guard Makenzie Kessler (6.6) and 5-5 sophomore guard Mia Nuckols (5.0).

Because a lengthy Covid-19 quarantine on Midland Trail's end, as well Covid-19 pauses from other schools, limited the Patriots to six regular season games, Kincaid said, "We didn't get a chance to experiment during the regular season."

During that time, Midland Trail went 6-0, with the final game being a 53-31 victory over Greater Beckley Christian on March 23. From that point, the Patriots didn't play again until a thrilling 50-49 win over Herbert Hoover on April 14 in the section tourney opener. Three nights later, Trail was on the opposite end of a one-point result, losing 47-46 to Sissonville in the section championship game.

Those two close contests, as well as giving the personnel tweaks a little more time to solidify, gave the Patriots enough momentum to pull out a 46-44 triumph over Shady Spring in a Class AAA Region 3 co-final at Shady Spring.

"The main advantage was playing those two one-point games," said Kincaid, who took several Fayetteville High girls teams to the state tournament before the school closed. The starters continued to mesh, and reserve Brylee Stephenson, a 6-0 sophomore center, "really stepped up" during the postseason, Kincaid said.

Kincaid said he's adjusted his approach from teams in the past. "I didn't sub much," he said. This season "has not been my normal helter skelter, playing eight, nine or 10 girls."

He says that, in light of the ongoing pandemic, his players are thrilled to achieve success and be in the state tournament. "You wouldn't believe the excitement they've had."

"We earned some respect," Kincaid added. "I don't think people thought we could get out of triple-A."

In its history, Midland Trail has advanced to the girls basketball state tournament in Class A, AA and AAA.

Nitro has won 12 straight games since its only loss of the 2021 campaign, a 57-53 verdict at Capital on March 13.

Of Nitro, Kincaid says, "They remind me of Shady Spring, but better. They've got a really good ball player, and they spread everything out. It's going to be pretty tough."

The Wildcats participated in the ill-fated 2020 girls high school tournament. In fact, head coach Pat Jones said Nitro's 63-55 loss to Lincoln High in the opening round of the Class AA portion of the event was the final completed game before the tourney was shut down due to the Covid-19 situation, which was just taking hold in the Mountain State at the time.

Nitro is led by 5-8 senior guard Baylee Goins, who scores at a 23.0 points per game clip and was one of three starters returning from last year's state tournament squad. The other two regulars back from the 2019-20 squad are 5-7 junior guard Patricia Ward and 5-11 junior forward Emily Lancaster. Brooklyn Bowen, a 5-8 senior forward, and 5-7 sophomore guard Taylor Maddox round out the starting five.

Jones said late last week he was still researching this week's opponent, which is making its first state tournament appearance since advancing in the Class A field in 2019. The Patriots, who featured Dickerson in the starting rotation, tumbled 74-29 to eventual state champion St. Joseph in the first round that year.

"I don't know much at all about them," Jones said on Friday. "I've heard they have a real good girl named Dickerson." He was in the process of seeking film on the Patriots.

Jones said his team's showing was based on solid effort all season long. "To come in and lose only one game says a lot about the growth and maturity (of the team members)," he said. "I'm not surprised we're 15-1."

Nitro defeated perennial Class A state champ St. Joseph, 63-50, in a Region 4 co-final to advance.

Jones says his team is poised for the challenge. "We just want to go with the flow of the game. Slow games are boring. We like to get out and go."

The Midland Trail-Nitro winner will face either No. 2 North Marion or No. 7 Hampshire on Friday at 11:15 a.m. in the semifinals. The Class AAA title game is planned for 5:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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