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.