Prep notebook: Irish in tourney mentality
By the time March gets here, Charleston Catholic will indeed be tournament-tested.
The Irish don't have any choice.
The current stretch of their schedule resembles, as coach Bill McClanahan calls it, 'three mini-state tournaments'' with seven games against many of the state's top-ranked teams.
To start it off, in a span of four days, Catholic was set to tackle Wheeling Central (winner of six Class A state titles from 2002-09), Poca (No. 4 in Class AA) and Parkersburg Catholic (No. 4 in Class A), though that hit a snag when Saturday's Poca game was postponed by snow. No makeup date has been set.
This coming weekend, the Irish are scheduled to tour the Eastern Panhandle, with a Friday night visit to Tucker County (No. 3 in A) and a Saturday afternoon tip in Moorefield (7-7, but coming off an upset win over Valley in the Big Atlantic Classic).
Three days later, Catholic faces a back-to-back Class A grind on Feb. 12-13 against Buffalo (No. 6) and Tug Valley (No. 2).
The combined record of those teams to start the week was 79-27, with five of the opponents already sporting at least a dozen victories.
"Those are state-tournament-level quality opponents,'' McClanahan said. "It's a state-tournament-level experience because you have to be ready to turn around and play right away against good competition.
"You're going to see some of the best, so we hope that when we come through that tunnel, when March does get here, we'll have a little bit better understanding of what it does take to try to be successful.''
The Irish hit that stretch perhaps at the top of their game, having won 11 straight since an early-season loss to Poca. There were a few bouts of spotty play during the win streak, but in the last two outings, the Irish were sharp - resulting in victories of 28 points over Gilmer County and 20 against Central.
"We've got some more big games coming up, and we're starting to look really good right now,'' said junior point guard Garret McCarty. "We're coming together as a team. It's a really good time to start looking like it. We've just got to keep [that switch on]. As long as we keep it that way, we'll be fine.''
McClanahan, who questioned his team's "basketball IQ'' during a midseason lull, is encouraged by what he's seen lately.
"We're making strides,'' he said, 'and the pieces are starting to fit together a little bit. At this time of the year, and with our schedule between now and March not having a lot of breaks, we have to get ready now. There's not a lot of cushion left in that schedule, so we've got to be ready.''
No time for the pain
Garrett Grafton may not be providing Winfield with a lot of points - he's averaging only about 3 per game - but the inspiration he provides the Generals is immeasurable.
Grafton, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound post player and lineman in football, has postponed surgery on his injured labrum until the end of the basketball season so he can complete his senior year.
The shoulder has been dislocated three times - in July during a basketball game, in football season last fall and again in basketball about a month ago. Still, Grafton labors on through the pain and limitations.
"I'm getting ready for surgery in the offseason and playing through the pain and contributing how I can,'' Grafton said. "I can pretty much do whatever I want. I just can't shoot with my left arm.''
Winfield coach Pat McGinnis said Grafton's attitude has been admirable in dealing with the injury and the reduced playing time, and still helps motivate the 9-7 squad.
"He's a guy that'd love to be able to play more time,'' McGinnis said, "but I can't play him because he's got one arm. But he's our captain, he's a role player, he knows he's supposed to rebound, play defense and do those things and get us a basket inside.''
Grafton, who expects to play football in college at West Virginia State, said he persists in playing because it's still enjoyable.
"I try to lead by example and get the guys up when they're down,'' he said. "Lighten the mood up on the court for them and make the game fun. It's supposed to be fun. And if you're not having fun out there, there's really no point to play.''
Home sweet Hometown?
Weather permitting, the third Hometown Invitational Tournament will wrap up with a bang this weekend as 12 games are scheduled at the Summersville Arena and Conference Center - four on Friday and eight on Saturday.
Several of the North and South Division I games were postponed by snow last week, leaving the identity of the teams battling for championships in doubt until later this week.
For instance, defending champion Buffalo still has yet to play a home game versus Richwood in the South semifinals, with that game being pushed back to 6 p.m. Wednesday. The North finals, pitting Clay-Battelle at St. Marys, was reset for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
The Hometown Invitational, which this year involves 24 state public schools, takes a bad rap on some message boards. Several fans think the only reason it exists is to bar the private schools around West Virginia, who have accounted for the last 11 boys Class A titles.
Buffalo coach Chuck Elkins, like some, scoffs at the HIT being billed as a public school state championship, but thinks it has plenty of merit.
"They talk about this being a state championship,'' Elkins said, "but it's not a state championship. It's a tournament. The one day of basketball at Summersville is going to be a good day - it should all be evenly matched teams.
"It gives our kids a tournament atmosphere. It gives our kids a chance to hang a banner, which is not much but, hey, we put a picture up on our wall when we won the Wirt County tournament [in December]. Now it may fall down in a couple weeks, but that's what we're playing for. The ultimate goal is to win the state tournament, but this [HIT] gives the kids something to shoot at.''
Owing to its past successes at the state tournament, Wheeling Central can't be counted out, even when it journeys through an 8-11 season like the current one.
With underclass talent like leading scorer Chase Harler (freshman) and David Park (junior), Central's downturn shouldn't be long, regardless.
The Maroon Knights also face long odds making the state tournament field out of Region 1, especially with the season teams like Magnolia, St. Marys and Clay-Battelle having been having.
However, Central has shown some flashes against a schedule chock full of triple-A sized opponents.
"We've been fairly competitive,'' said coach Mel Stephens. "We're in an awfully tough region and we're going to have to play better than we've played to be able to get to the state tournament.''
Ryan Pritt contributed to this report. Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.