By Dave Morrison
It likely was that only Ron Kidd, the eternal optimist that the Woodrow Wilson coach has always been, was the only one in Beckley not pushing the proverbial panic button when the Flying Eagles saw the season frittering away.
It dissolved from 1-3 to 2-6 to what seemed to be a bottoming out at 4-10.
So did the thought ever creep into Kidd’s mind that maybe, just maybe, this was the season that the annual rite of March (or May in these pandemic times), Woodrow Wilson hosting a regional championship, wouldn’t happen?
Despite the skeptics, Kidd never allowed himself to entertain those thoughts.
“You never think like that,” Kidd said. “Sometimes when you start thinking like that then it starts to come true. We always feel like we are going to host that regional game.”
And so they are, when the Flying Eagles (9-11) entertain No. 8 South Charleston (12-5) Wednesday beginning at 7 p.m. at the Armory in Beckley. No. 7 Greenbrier East (10-3) visits No. 2 George Washington in the other regional final.
The Flying Eagles rebounded by winning five of their final six games, that lone loss at Parkersburg South when the Beckley bunch lost by four, 59-55 in one of the state’s tougher venues.
While a victory over then No. 1 George Washington (58-50 at the Armory March 27 was the season’s signature win, the most satisfying was Woodrow’s season-saving sectional tournament success.
Woodrow had to go on the road twice and beat No. 2 seed Princeton and then No. 1 seed Greenbrier East (Woodrow was 1-3 in the regular season against two long-time section rivals). Mission accomplished.
So what happened? When did the worm turn?
For starters the schedule was brutal. Woodrow played eight of the top 10 teams in the final Class AAAA AP poll, as well as Shady Spring and Nitro, both Top 4 teams in Class AAA. Only four of Woodrow’s 20 games (nobody in the state played that many games) came against non-ranked teams and Bluefield was ranked for part of the season.
“The season was battle-tested,” Kidd said. “That was probably the hardest schedule that Woodrow Wilson has ever had. All those teams in that Top 10 were good.”
The expectations were high, but that is nothing different for Woodrow Wilson.
It was really just as simple as maturing through a tough schedule.
“You’ve got to give our kids a whole lot of credit,” Kidd said. “The way they’ve been practicing and playing. They’ve been playing with a lot of emotion, a lot of heart and a lot of hustle, and a lot of pride. They are getting what Woodrow Wilson basketball is all about.
“The expectations were high, but they are always high. I really felt good about this team coming in and at this point they are showing what they can do.”
The Flying Eagles played South Charleston March 29 and lost to the No. 8 Black Eagles 52-42.
In that game K.K. Slay had 10 points to lead Woodrow. Ben Gilliam was held to seven points, but he had 19 rebounds. Before scoring nine with 18 rebounds, the South Charleston game was the last time Gilliam had a non-double figure game.
For the season the 6-foot-6 Gilliam, whop recently signed with Davis & Elkins, is averaging a team-high 12.8 points and 13.3 rebounds per game. Maddex McMillen is averaging 11.9 points and has a team-best 25 3s.
After that it’s a balanced scoring team. Freshman Elijah Redfern, who had a career-best 16 against Greenbrier East in the sectional win over East, is averaging 8.9. Dwayne Richardson, who had a career-high 18 in the East game (and was 10-10 at the free throw line) is averaging 8.6. Keynan Cook is averaging 7.8 points and 6.2 rebounds and K.K. Slay is at 5.3 ppg.
Bryson Smith, Mondrell Dean and Wayne Harris, who all tallied double figures for South Charleston in that first game, are players to watch.
“We’ve been hosting this regional the last three years, and we haven’t closed the deal,” Kidd said. “When we host this time our kids need to realize we need to close the deal by getting the win.”
A homecoming and a a pair of dynamic duos highlight the other Region 3 game. Greenbrier East will visit George Washington Wednesday at 7 p.m. At least one of the Spartans will be intimately familiar with the surrounding. William Gabbert played for Rick Greene’s squad for three seasons.
His dad Trent grew up in the Lewisburg area and played for the Spartans and the family moved back to the area in the summer.
Gabbert has taken full advantage of the opportunity. He is averaging 20.7 ppg and, after scoring five in the season opener, has scored in double figures in 12 straight. He has eight games of 20-plus points and had a career-best 34 against Wyoming East.
He team’s with Bailee Coles, who averages a team-high 22.5 points per game.
When Coles missed five games with a leg injury Gabbert had games of 29, 26, 20, 34 and 13 points with 20 3s. He has 44 3s for the season.
Coles has not scored below 16 in a game this season and has averaged right at his season average, 22.5, in the postseason.
Greenbrier East was without a majority of its varsity squad – only Coles, Gabbert, Adam Seams and Tucker Via, from the varsity team, suited up in the sectional tournament. The others were quarantined. Greenbrier East is scheduled to get those players back this week for the Region 3 title game.
George Washington has its own 1-2 punch in Alex Yoakum who is averaging 20.7 points and Mason Pinkett who is sitting at 19.4 ppg.