By J. Daniel Rollins
Register-Herald Sports Writer
“We. Want. Westside.”
Those were the words on the lips of the Wyoming East student section, sitting directly opposite the Westside team and coaching staff, as the Family Healthcare Classic drew to a close on Dec. 28.
This year, it appears Westside wants Wyoming East just as bad.
“Sometimes ya gotta be careful what you wish for,” said Westside coach Nick Cook.
It’s been five long years since the Renegades (5-3) have defeated the Warriors (5-1), but the talk around Wyoming County this year is this team could be the one that turns the tide in favor of the black and silver.
“I’m sure they want to be the group to end the draught,” Cook said of his team. “It’s been a driving tool for us. They’ve kind of been where we want to be.”
Wyoming East has appeared in the state championship five times since the school was founded in 1998 and has cut the nets in Charleston three times: 2002, 2007 and 2008.
Westside has been led by the duo of Corey Bowles and Justin Cogar this season. Bowles, a 6-foot-2 junior, is averaging 14 points a game while the 6-2 sophomore Cogar is leading the team with 17 points per game.
While Westside’s record has a couple more in the loss column than that of the Warriors, it’s not indicitive of how the team has played this season.
“Every game, it seems like we have different things going on -- some good and some bad,” Cook said. “If all of them ever come together at the same time and be on the same page, we can be a very dangerous team.”
The Renegades have played with aggression this season, utilizing a smothering press and forcing turnovers, all while averaging 70.6 points per game and holding their opponents to 66 points per game. Cook insists that those statistics won’t matter when East comes to town however.
“It’s one of those games that, for the most part, you throw the records out the door,” he said. “All the things you typically look at go out the door. Once the ball goes up, it’s totally different. Every game is different. Every matchup is different.”
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Wyoming East comes into the game riding high on the back of four-game winning streak, including a 73-63 victory over Fairmont Senior, a team which defeated Westside twice this season, 78-55 on Dec. 21 and 74-60 on Dec, 27, the first night of the Family Healthcare Classic.
“We went into the game (against Fairmont) knowing it was a winnable game,” Wyoming East coach Rory Chapman said. “What Westside did against Fairmont and what we did against Fairmont doesn’t make any difference. It’s a county rivalry game.”
The Warriors are playing balanced and fundamental basketball this season, forcing turnovers, making layups and shooting lights out from the charity stripe.
“This team may be better than any I’ve ever coached at the line,” Chapman said. “It’s helped us win some games this season.”
Wyoming East will go into the battle with a height advantage. Senior Brett Bowling is 6-4. Freshman Cody Lester is 6-5. Oh, and when those guys need a break, they’re subbed out by 6-6 Tyler Lester and 6-3 John Morgan.
While he knows his players will be up for the game, Chapman isn’t treating the rivalry matchup any differently.
“As a coach, it’s like any other game. You want to attack it like any other game. Kids will be more fired up, but it’s the next game on the schedule.”
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Basketball is more than a game in Wyoming County. It’s a religion. The court is it’s church. Names like Greer, D’Antoni, Stover and Simmons are their saints.
“Around here, from the time you’re 5 years old, they start preaching to you basketball, basketball, basketball.” Westside girls coach and former Oceana standout Jamie Lusk said. “It’s a big thing here. People love to go watch it. They love the way it makes them feel.”
“In Wyoming County, basketball has been king for as long as I can remember,” Chapman said. “Football and baseball was good, but when it comes to November through March, it’s all basketball.”
“Basketball in Wyoming County means a great deal,” legendary Mullens coach Don Nuckols said.
Nuckols coached the Mullens Rebels to five state championships and one runner-up finish between 1969 and 1984.
“For a county like that, basketball was tremendous,” said Nuckols. “There’ve been some great players come out of those towns. There was always some older guy that the younger guys looked up to.”
“Basketball is steeped in tradition here. You’ve got state championships in just about every school,” former Oceana and Westside coach Jimmy Hopkins said. Hopkins won the state championship with Oceana in1994.
“I remember going to Coach Nuckols basketball camps when I was a kid in Mullens,” Chapman said. “There were guys like Herbie Brooks and Greg White who were there and made it a great camp for the kids. In the summer the courts were always packed. Basketball was passed down through the generations.”
“Basketball gave the community something to do, to show some community pride,” Nuckols said. “You would go downtown before the big game and everyone wanted to know what you thought your team could do. Then you’d go downtown the day after the big game and everyone would be talking about how you did.”
“Anytime we played the rivals, they’d have to turn people away,” Lusk said with a laugh. “ There’d be people standing in the corner on top of buckets just so they could see the court.”
“It’s about passion. We hated Pineville and Oceana when we played them,” said Rob Fulford, a former Mullens star and current head coach of Huntington Prep. “We took our team (Huntington Prep) down there last year to watch Wyoming East and Westside play so they would understand passion.”
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Wyoming East and Westside will tipoff for the first time this season tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Clear Fork, a game fans have been clamoring to see since the 2011-2012 season ended.
“Any time you play your county rival, it’s always a big game. You’re not just representing a school, you’re representing a community,” Cook said.
Fans from both schools have been taking to social media and message boards all year anticipating the matchup.
“It’s a game that’s always penciled in,” Chapman said. “You want to win every game, but the fans put more emphasis on this game.”
The Renegade fans will be hoping to take a rowdy home court and making it their advantage. The fans have been waiting for a home game since Dec. 18, the night they defeated class-AAA Shady Spring.
“It’s a tough enivornment,” Chapman said. “It’s a lot like East. They’ve got great fan support.”
“It get us amped,” Cook said of playing at home. “That plays a big role. It provides an advantage.”
— E-mail: jrollins
For team coverage check us out online at www.register-herald.com and look for the "In The Paint" link.
By J. Daniel Rollins
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