CHARLESTON - Wheeling Park has lost the last two Class AAA championship games, but Coach Michael Jebbia will tell you this is ''a new team and a new year.''
Wheeling Park will try to make the third time the charm when it takes on Hedgesville at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the West Virginia Boys' State Basketball Tournament at the Civic Center Coliseum.
''We are excited to be going down and it really helps when you have guys that have played in this kind of tournament before,'' Jebbia said. ''We have high expectations and the kids are hungry to make another run.
File Photo by Jim Elliott
Errin Baynes, left, is one of seven Wheeling Park seniors playing in his final state tournament. He’s widely regarded as the school’s best athlete.
''It doesn't matter what has happened in another year. We are focused right now on Hedgesville. The ultimate goal is always to win a state championship but there are steps to get there. We have to get through Wednesday to have a chance on Saturday.''
Wheeling Park is led by senior Boo Lathon, who was honored earlier this week as the winner of the Evans Award as the top boys' basketball player in the state.
Lathon is one of the most athletic kids you will see and leads the Patriots with 19.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds. He has scored in double figures 24 out of the 25 games Wheeling Park has played and has recorded 15 double-doubles.
Errin Baynes may be the best athlete in the school as state champion in track and an all-stater in soccer. He's pretty good at basketball, too. Baynes averages 14 points and 4.1 rebounds and has a high of 38 points against Parkersburg South and added 33 in a sectional victory against Morgantown.
Vondel Bell, a 6-foot-4 guard, averages 6.9 points but his biggest contribution comes on the defensive side.
''One of the things that makes this team different than the ones in the past is the senior leadership,'' Jebbia said. ''We have seven seniors and they have really taken this team as their own. Boo, Errin, and Vondel have been part of the varsity for three years and have played in some big games.
''They have seen a lot of success and are positive kids. They work hard and form a real solid core.''
Another top senior is guard is Emil Popicg, who is the team's leading 3-point shooter. Sophomore forward Luke Saseen is coming into form after an early injury and is fitting in nicely with his teammates at the right time.
Lee Peluchette, Michael Thomas, Na'Kwaun Phillips, Andrew Kowalo, and Kody Geisel come off the bench and provide quality minutes.
The Patriots enter as the No. 2 seed but that is something that seemed like a long shot not that long ago.
Wheeling Park lost in the Cancer Research Classic to St. Joseph's Prep, starting a three-game skid that included losses to Logan and Parkersburg South to drop to 6-4.
The Patriots responded with five straight victories before a loss at Morgantown that Jebbia referred to as ''one of the worst games we've played in four years.''
It almost turned into a blessing in disguise because Wheeling Park hasn't lost since.
Included in its nine-game winning streak to close the season is a week in which Park went on the road and knocked off Morgantown, followed by a quick turnaround the next day by beating then No.1-ranked South Charleston on the same Civic Center floor the teams will play on this week (South Charleston is the No. 3 seed and if it gets by Parkersburg, the teams will meet again Friday).
After those two victories, Wheeling Park returned to the Ohio Valley and downed Indian Creek to win a fourth straight OVAC championship.
''That week kinda set the tone and you want to be playing well in February,'' Jebbia said. ''Instead of worrying, we tried to control it. We set everything up for the stretch run and that really is what helped us get the No. 2 seed.''
The Eagles (21-6) have their own superstar in all-stater Q.J. Peterson, who averages 19 points per game. He is joined by Juwan Powell and an athletic wing player in Chris Shields.
''The offense goes through them and they are a very sound defensive team, as well,'' Jebbia said. ''They have three starters returning from the team we beat in the semifinals last season so we are familiar with them.
''If we stick to what we've been doing, I feel we can be very successful. We have to rebound as a team and not just expect Boo to go up and get everything. We have to be a good inside-outside team. In the state tournament, a few plays here and few play there can mean everything. Not to mention you always need a little luck.
''Luckily, we have some winning players on this team.''