CHARLESTON — Playing in the WVSSAC state tournament is never a given. Even for a storied program like Wheeling Park, getting to make the trip to play in the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center is an accomplishment all on its own.
That is a lesson the Patriots have learned the hard way over the last few years, after qualifying for the tournament in 2020 just for it to be canceled due to COVID and dropping a heart-breaker to University in the Regional Championship last season.
That’s why even though Park fell 72-46 to Parkersburg South in Thursday’s Class AAAA quarterfinal round, the Patriots appreciated having the chance to play inside the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.
“I made it down here when I was younger four of five years in a row and thought this was going to happen all the time and it’s not when you’re playing Morgantown, University and Bridgeport,” said Park coach Mike Jebbia. “The last few years were hard. You battle (University standout) Kaden Metheny and getting off the Pierpont exit you get stomach cramps after seeing him for three years. He graduates and then Morgantown High is going to be No. 1 for two years.”
Wheeling Park started this season 0-3 and sat at just 4-7 as late as January 21.
“We rallied and really came together,” Jebbia said. “We won 10 of 12 games and won the regional championship to be able to get down here.
“It’s a tough feeling right now, but I think we’ll look back and enjoy this and it’ll set the tone for 2023.”
Park took a methodical approach into Thursday’s matchup with Parkersburg South but was ultimately unable to keep pace with the high-powered No. 3 seed.
“Our game plan early on was to try to have some longer possessions on offense,” Jebbia explained. “They average 75-77 points a game and we’re just not quite as high scoring of a team.”
Park’s gameplan worked for a while, as they only trailed 11-8 after one quarter and led 13-12 a few minutes into the second. However, South was eventually able to speed up the pace of play and closed the half on a blistering 19-2 scoring run that gave them a 31-15 advantage at the break.
“The first quarter and a half went well,” Jebbia said. “Had (the lead) been seven or eight at halftime, I think we may have been able to make a bit of a better comeback in the third quarter.”
A big part of Park’s offensive woes was that they struggled to score the ball inside. Post players Brett Phillips and Caleb Francis combined to shoot just 4-14 in the first half. Leading that effort for South was forward Caleb Schaffer, who more than stood his ground while defending Phillips and Francis under the basket.
“Caleb Schaffer’s an animal,” said South coach Mike Fallon. “He rebounds, he plays defense, he sets screens, he does all the things that no one sees but us. He’s a huge part of what we do and he’s an unsung hero on this team.”
A 5-point spurt by Park to start the third quarter cut the deficit to 11, but that was as close as the No. 6 seed would ever get. A 12-3 South run in the third quarter gave them a comfortable lead and a 13-0 run in the fourth put Park away for good.
“They press you to try to get the game sped up to their tempo,” Jebbia said. “If we had been able to keep (the score) in the 60s, we would’ve liked it, but we just couldn’t create enough offense in the first half.
“They were physical. We usually are a team that gets to the foul line and shoots a good many free throws and we just weren’t able to do that today.”
Park shot just 19-62 in the game, including 6-25 on 3-pointers and 13-37 on 2-pointers. The Patriots only shot three free throw attempts, making two.
South’s full-court press defense only generated 11 Park turnovers, but the constant pressure kept Park’s shooters off guard throughout the contest.
“We weren’t getting steals and stuff out of (the press), but we were constantly running at them,” Fallon said. “Their kids were looking around thinking ‘where’s this guy coming from? Where’s that guy coming from?’. That havoc is just an uncomfortable feeling.”
Freshman Aiden Davis led Park with 16 points, shooting 6-16 from the floor and 3-10 from three in his first state tournament game.
“We’ve asked him to do an awful lot as a ninth-grader,” Jebbia said. “This is the first ninth-grader that’s ever started for us. We asked him to set up the offense, get the ball in the right spots, not turn the ball over, score for us; that’s a lot for a ninth-grader.”
Francis and Phillips both finished with eight points but were a combined 7-22 from the floor. On 2-pointers, the pair only shot 5-17.
Ashton Mooney and Jackson Smith led South with 17 points apiece while Cyrus Traugh added 14. South shot 26-60 in the game and 9-20 on 3-pointers, draining six in the second half.
“Our guys kept playing, kept fighting but at the end of the day, South’s got to hit some shots and they did that,” Jebbia said. “They hit some tough shots and they hit some timely threes as we were trying to scramble and get back.”
Parkersburg South advances to Friday’s semifinal round where they will play Jefferson.
Despite the loss, Park was already thinking about getting back to Charleston next season, especially with four of their five starters and nine players overall returning.
“It was definitely a great experience,” Phillips said. “Last year we had a heart-breaking loss to University so it was really good to finally get over the hump this year and get down to Charleston.”
“I’m just so glad that the three seniors got to come down here,” Jebbia said. “For the nine returners, this will be a reference point next year.”