By Cam Huffman
The Greenbrier East-Woodrow Wilson basketball game has always included a little extra tension.
Ask legendary Woodrow Wilson head coach Dave Barksdale, who heard more boos in his trips to Greenbrier County than Rich Rodriguez walking into a Mountaineer pep rally.
Check with Greenbrier East play-by-play radio announcer Jeff Campbell, who exclaimed on the air, “Ding-dong the witch is dead,” when the Spartans upset the Flying Eagles last year in Beckley.
The schools simply love to hate each other.
But never has the rivalry — which will be renewed tonight at 7:30 p.m., when the Flying Eagles travel to Fairlea — been more heated than in recent years. Not only are the Spartans led by a Woodrow graduate in head coach Jim Justice, adding a little personal fuel to the fire, the series has also reached a new level of competitiveness.
Historically, Woodrow has been the Goliath, with East playing the role of David. The Flying Eagles have won 16 state championships to Greenbrier East’s single title. The Flying Eagles came within a whisker of winning another championship last season, while the Spartans haven’t been to Charleston since 2002. The series itself, in fact, has been largely dominated by the boys in maroon.
But these Spartans are a little different. East finished 20-5 last season, its second with Justice in charge, and spent most of the year ranked among the state’s top teams. It knocked off Woodrow Wilson 61-59 in the teams’ only regular season meeting last year — the Spartans’ first regular-season victory inside the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center since 1976 — and its roster includes two Division I signees in Rondale Watson and Obi Romeo.
“Those guys didn’t sign D-I scholarships for no reason,” said Woodrow Wilson head coach Ron Kidd, who found revenge against East last year with a blowout victory in the sectional final. “And (point guard Isaiah Kinder) is a really good player, too. They’re going to be a good team.”
The Spartans (5-2) were ranked No. 6 in the Class AAA preseason poll and are led by Watson, a Wake Forest signee who’s already scored more than 1,100 points in his high school career and is averaging 26.3 points per game. Romeo, a St. Joseph’s signee, is a walking double-double, who also swats away shots like a high school senior matched up against a sixth-grader, and Wyoming East transfer Josh Tunstalle is averaging double figures with a little more than 11 points per game.
Tyler Canterbury is the Spartans’ outside sharpshooter, and Kinder, who quarterbacked the football team, has managed the basketball offense effectively.
Woodrow (1-1), ranked No. 3 in the Class AAA preseason poll, will be missing its biggest star tonight. Point guard Donte Nabors, a Class AAA first team all-stater as a junior, was injured during the Flying Eagles’ win over Oak Hill a week ago today. He’ll be out, “at least 10 days,” according to Kidd, but the Flying Eagles won’t be without offensive weapons.
Dai Dai Fortune — fully healthy after a car wreck that caused him to miss a large chunk of the 2012-13 season — is averaging 12.5 points per game, and sophomore Nequan Carrington is a force inside, averaging 11.5 points per outing. Jaylon Breckenridge (10 ppg) and Chase Hancock (10.5 ppg), one of the state’s best defenders, give Woodrow two other double-figure scorers.
“It’s a big change,” said Kidd of the absence of Nabors, who will be replaced at point guard by junior Corey Acord. “But it just creates an opportunity for some other kids. Somebody’s got to step up.
“I would think the kids would be hyped no matter who we have out there. You throw that stuff out the door in a rivalry game like this.”
Kidd also expects his defense to pick up some of the slack from the missing offensive spark. Woodrow has long been known for its relentless pressure attack, and Kidd said this year’s defense is well ahead of the offense at this point.
East does have the advantage of having played seven games, compared to two for the Flying Eagles. Kidd said the experience of playing in front of a crowd with referees more often could help the Spartans, but he’s just anxious to get his team back on the floor.
“We just need games,” he said. “I’m tired of practicing. The more we play, the better we’re going to get.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.