By Steve Keenan
Register-Herald Sports Writer
The Valley High School girls will try to shake off about two decades of state tournament dust Wednesday.
And standing in the way as the girls state basketball tournament commences at the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum is perennial state tourney participant (and 2008 state champ) Wheeling Central.
The two squads square off at 1 p.m. today at the Civic Center in the tourney’s opening round. The winner advances to a 9:30 a.m. Class A semifinal on Friday against either St. Marys or Tygarts Valley. The single-A championship is at noon Saturday.
Valley is making its first girls state tournament appearance since coach Ray Londeree and players Chiquitta Walker and April Day led the Greyhounds to Charleston in the 1991-92 school year.
First-year Valley coach Richie Cantrell realizes his team will face a program that boasts a lot of state tournament experience.
Concerning Central’s decided edge in big game experience over the years, Cantrell said, “It was obvious that everyone in the room (at the weekend tournament meeting at the WVSSAC office) knew them. They’ve been multiple times, and there’s a reason it’s like that.”
“Wheeling Central is very well-coached and well-funded,” Cantrell added.
While his team has posted a better record this season and boasts a richer tournament pedigree, Wheeling Central coach Penn Kurtz feels the Greyhounds will provide a stiff challenge.
“I’d say it should be a pretty even game,” Kurtz said. “We might have a little edge with our guard play.”
The Maroon Knights (21-4), who lost in last year’s final to St. Joseph and fell in the semifinals to St. Marys in the previous year, arrive in Charleston as Class A’s No. 2 seed, while Valley (13-7) is No. 7 in the eight-team field.
Senior guard/forward Alexis Payne enters the tournament with a 25.2 points per game average, while pulling down 16.6 rebounds an outing, to spearhead the Valley attack. Sophomore guard Abby Buchan has also enjoyed a productive campaign, averaging 19.6 ppg and netting 30 3-point field goals.
Between them, the explosive duo has 10 30-plus-point games (Payne six and Buchan four). Payne has eclipsed the 30-point barrier in three of her last five games.
Kurtz is wary of Payne and Buchan, in particular. “They’re versatile,” Kurtz says.
“From what I’ve been able to read ... I know she (Payne) is pretty dynamic. We’ll have our hands full trying to defend her,” said Kurtz, who also acknowledged his team will have to contain Buchan.
Kelsey Bird, a junior, averages 7.3 points per outing for the Greyhounds, and Gracyn Grubb (3.4 ppg and 8.1 rpg) and Alaysha Taylor round out the starting lineup. Other contributors include Emily Smallman, Chelsea Lively, Lauren Pleva, Emily Beard and Tennel Green.
Cantrell says schools such as WVU and Marshall are “missing a big opportunity” if they don’t recruit Payne.
“We were kind of short-handed to start the year and had young players,” said Valley assistant coach Jeff Minter. “As the season progressed, our younger players have come together and picked it up and made us stronger.”
“We started working on fundamentals early in the season,” stressed Cantrell. After sailing through an 8-0 start, the schedule got a little tougher and Valley began losing some. The team faced some “adjustment issues” but has responded and wound up turning in a solid effort to beat Region 3, Section 1 winner Tug Valley 62-58 on its home floor Thursday to advance.
“We played some really good teams,” he said. “That showed us how to play against pressure.
“And we had to stress to the girls to keep an eye on the prize.”
“I’m excited, not real nervous, just excited,” Payne, Valley’s lone senior, said of finally being able to play in the state tournament.
Payne’s father, Alex, played for the Greyhounds in the Class AA boys state basketball tournament in the mid-1990s, and her mother, Tenea Newman, was a member of several productive VHS track teams that experienced statewide success. “We just have to go down there and play hard and play like (every game) is the last game.
“I think we can match up with them.”
“This season was actually better than I thought it would be,” she added. “Last year brought us together a lot.”
“A lot of people doubted us,” added Buchan. “I knew we could do it, and Alexis has been our leader.
“We worked really hard. Hopefully we can win and keep going.”
Wheeling Central is led by returning first-team all-stater Emily Bucon, a 5-foot-9 guard who has battled an injury but has averaged 14.6 points and 4.8 rebounds, and 5-10 senior Colleen McCormick (22.1 ppg, 14 rpg). “Colleen plays all over for us,” said Kurtz.
Other starters are junior point guard Maria Olson, senior guard Beth Stayduhar and junior forward Madison Basinger.
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