By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
The last time the Woodrow Wilson Flying Eagles stepped foot on Dave Barksdale Court at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center, it was a victory over Riverside that punched Woodrow’s ticket to Charleston.
When they take to it tonight, they hope for the same magic.
The Flying Eagles (0-1) will open up the home portion of its schedule tonight against Oak Hill (2-2), renewing a rivalry that has seen many epic encounters in the two schools’ history.
The Class AAA No. 2-ranked Eagles opened the season last Friday on the road against No. 4 Huntington, losing 77-68. Tonight, they’ll hope for a much different result in their quest for a record 17th state championship.
“We’ve just got to come out and play hard,” senior Donte Nabors said. “Even though we lost to Huntington, deep down in our heart we know it hurts, but we’ve got to move on to the next game.”
Gone from last year’s state runner-up is point guard Andrew Johnson, who provided more than the ability to dish out passes and score when needed, but the leadership necessary to get over some early season hurdles.
With Johnson out of the picture, Nabors, who scored 14 against Huntington, will step up and serve as not only a leader for a hungry Flying Eagle squad, but will take over for Johnson at the point guard position.
“It was a struggle,” Nabors said of playing point. “Once I get used to it, I’m sure it will be better. I like to play the 2 (guard), I like to score, but now I have to get my team the ball. I like doing that, too, but it’s different.”
The Flying Eagles return an experienced and athletic team from a year ago. In addition to Nabors, seniors Chase Hancock and Dai Dai Fortune return, along with sophomore Nequan Carrington and junior Noah Hancock.
Fortune led Woodrow against Huntington with 21 points.
For first-year Red Devils coach Wes Brown, he believes that while his team may not have the basketball ability of Woodrow, they can match up athletically with the Flying Eagles. And while the mountain may look steep, Brown isn’t doubting his team’s chances.
“We’re athletic and long just like they are,” he said. “But we don’t have any 6-9 kids running the floor. And we didn’t play in the state championship last year. Our kids know all of this. We won three games last year and Woodrow went to the state championship. Our kids know that and are motivated by that.”
One player Oak Hill will look to utilize is multi-sport athlete Jalen Jones, who returned to the Red Devils this season following a year away from the hardwood.
Nabors is relishing the opportunity to go against a tough opponent like Jones.
“I think Jalen is a great player,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
It’s a battle that Brown and the Devils fully expect.
While there isn’t much tape on the Flying Eagles, due to playing only one game so far this season, Brown hopes that his assistant coaches will be able to help with the game plan. Mike Fowlkes and Art Maddox joined the Red Devils staff this season and are very familiar with the Woodrow players due to their involvement with the program in years past, as well as AAU.
“Them knowing these kids and the personnel is going to be huge for us,” he said. “As far as game planning goes we kind of know more about them. We expect Chase (Hancock), who is one of the best defenders in the state, to defend Jalen.”
While the Woodrow-Oak Hill rivalry has cooled off over the last decade, many see it as heating back up since the Red Devils moved back to AAA a year ago.
“The older folks that I talk to, they’re the ones that have the rivalry,” Brown said. “The younger kids know the kids from Woodrow and want to play and do well against them, while the older folks see the rivalry. It makes sense. They haven’t played for a while and now all of a sudden it’s back and we think it will come back again.”
The players may know each other, but Nabors insists, it’s all business tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“There’s no friends on the court,” he said. “Off the court we can be friends, but we want to win.”
— E-mail: jrollins@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter at @JDanielRollins.