Buster Large knows when the drive for a return to Charleston began for the Bluefield Beavers.
How about just minutes after the Beavers dropped a 58-52 decision to Tug Valley in the Class AA state championship game last season at the Charleston Civic Center.
“This started really in that dressing room up there about 1:45 when we lost that game,” Bluefield head coach Buster Large said. “We realized what we were going to do and the kids have responded well, and the coaching staff has worked extremely hard.
“I cannot ask for a better coaching staff. We all get along, we are all in this for the kids, we are all in this together.”
While Bluefield is 22-3 on the season and the top seed in the eight-team Class AA tournament, the Beavers are intent on winning one game at a time, with the final victory coming in the title game on Saturday.
“I know they are not satisfied being 22-3,” Large said. “The ideal thing is to be playing Saturday afternoon and being able to have something special about 3:45 that afternoon and these kids are very capable of doing that.”
Bluefield will open play on Thursday against North Marion (16-8), which is in its first season in Class AA, having defeated Webster County in double overtime to qualify for a meeting with the Beavers in Charleston.
“Everybody thinks that because you are the top seed (you are the favorite), but this draw we got may be one of the most difficult teams in the tournament,” Large said. “All eight teams are very difficult.”
The winner will meet Robert C. Byrd (19-6) or Tolsia (17-8) in Friday’s semifinals. The rest of the field includes Fairmont Senior (19-6), Westside (19-6), Scott (15-10) and Bridgeport (18-7).
“We just have to be humble and be confident and not be cocky, take one game at a time,” Bluefield junior point guard Lykel Collier said. “We can’t overlook anybody, these are the best eight teams in the state.”
Bluefield wants to be the very best, something the Beavers were last in consecutive seasons under Danny Gaither in 1995 and ‘96. They have been to the title game four times since and lost in ‘97, ‘99, 2006 and last season.
“I think we have a chance to make history,” Large said. “This is going to be a special tournament with the 100 year anniversary of the tournament.”
What better time to get over the top again.
“Like we have told these kids every day since November, they are not going to remember who scored 15 points and had five rebounds (in a game),” Large said. “When they walk through that door and see your picture up on that wall at Bluefield High School and know that you were a member of a state championship team, that will stay with you the rest of your life.”
No one has to remind the Beavers of what is at stake.
“I am really excited, going upstate, that is our ultimate goal, coming into the season we wanted to make it upstate,” Bluefield junior Michael Yost said. “It is like the best feeling in the world.
“You get up there playing in front of thousands of people, it is a good atmosphere and it is a good moment to enjoy in life. You will never forget it.”
Collier, Yost and Anthony Eades were sophomore leaders last season for the Beavers, compiling a 26-2 record, but fell short after a slow start against the more experienced Panthers from Tug Valley.
“We were real young last year. It was a new feeling and we were nervous, but we know what to expect this year,” said Yost, whose Beavers defeated Berkeley Springs and Tolsia to reach the championship game. “We didn’t know anything about Tug Valley...
“We were surprised when we played them, they played real good. I guess it was their year, but hopefully this is our year.”
Tug Valley had been there the year before and lost, but returned full of confidence and rolled to the title in their final season in Class AA.
Could the Beavers follow their lead?
“There is no better word than experience,” Large said. “Tug Valley had it back to back before they won it last year. We played well last year in that game, but we didn’t play well enough to win.
“We got beat by a better team, this is a new year and I just feel good about these kids.”
So do the kids. Bluefield has lost just three games all season, twice to Class AAA Princeton and once at AAA Greenbrier East, and have been the top-ranked team in West Virginia for much of the campaign.
“I guess the most important thing is getting back, the kids were able to find a way to get back and with our schedule that we played, this is a tremendous feat,” Large said. “Overall, I think that schedule made us a better team.
“The most important thing is how you are playing right now and I really feel for the last two or three games we have played four quarters of great basketball.”
Bluefield has won three straight, hammering James Monroe and PikeView by a combined 74 points to claim the sectional title, and then used a big second half to beat Wyoming East by 16 points in the regionals.
That put the Beavers back in Charleston, which was the goal since that loss to Tug Valley all those months ago.
“It was crazy, I had never played in front of that many people,” said Eades, of last year’s state title game. “It was a lot different than I had expected, but we will be used to that this year hopefully and play to our advantage...
“We are going to have to play our game and we are going to stay focused. We can’t let one or two games get to our heads, we just have to keep focused on the next game.”
Eades (19.3 ppg), Collier (13.4 ppg, 8.2 assists) and Yost (12.3 ppg) have been the leaders all season for the Beavers, but Large has been pleased by the improvement inside of D.J. Edwards (10.6 ppg, 6.0 reb) and Graham transfer Corey Coppola (7.5 ppg, 5.9).
There is also the bench, where contributions have come from guards Jordan Ponder and Dakota Smalls, and the brother duo of Matthew and David Woodrum in the paint.
All will be needed as the Beavers prepare for the taller Huskies on Thursday.
“Last year we really didn’t know much about all the teams, we went up kind of figuring that we could win it, but this year we know a little bit about all the teams,” Collier said. “We have seen most of them and this time we are just going to be more humble about the situation this year, not overlook anybody and just know that we can get beat on any given night.”
Those are words that Large feels like the Beavers will live by as they focus on taking it one game at a time.
“I am really proud of what these young men have done, they set a goal last year they wanted to get back and it is not easy to get back, there are a lot of teams that are not back there this year,” Large said. “It is a very exciting time of the year, this is what it is all about.
“I think we found that out last year. When you go out like we did in that state championship and you look up and there are 10,000 people there and every camera in the state of West Virginia and every radio station in West Virginia, it is different.”
Bluefield has enjoyed a large fan following at the Brushfork Armory this season, and Large expects a strong contingent to travel to Charleston.
“We feel good about it, the kids are excited, I have never seen so much pride in the community, not only at Bluefield High School, but everywhere I go,” Large said. “My coaching staff and these players, these people have wished us well and they want us to do well.
“I truly want to thank them for all the support they have given us all year long and I am sure that will continue in Charleston. I think everybody likes to see a winner and these kids are winners.”
—Contact Brian Woodson
Memory of title loss spurs Bluefield back to states
Buster Large knows when the drive for a return to Charleston began for the Bluefield Beavers.
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