By Cam Huffman
The Greenbrier East-Woodrow Wilson basketball rivalry is always one of the area’s best. Whether it’s overflow crowds in Fairlea, watching the game on televisions in the school’s cafeteria, or the ear-ringing chants of “Woodrow Wilson” at the Raleigh County Convention Center, there’s a special electricity when the two teams meet on the hardwood.
What the series has lacked, though, is true competition.
While Woodrow Wilson has won 16 state championships, the most recent in 2008, Greenbrier East has just one, with Warren Baker leading the way in 1972. And for every Spartan victory in the series, the Flying Eagles win nine or 10. East’s last victory, in fact, came in the 2010 sectional tournament.
But when the teams get together tonight at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center for a 7:30 p.m. tip-off, things will be a little different.
East is not a big underdog looking to pull off a major upset. It’s 8-0 for the first time since 2006 and playing with a great deal of confidence. The Spartans will be looking to make a statement by knocking off a Woodrow club that’s also perfect at 3-0.
“We’re just starting to get there,” said East head coach Jim Justice, who led the Spartan girls’ team to a state championship last year in is in his second season coaching both the girls’ and boys’ teams at East. “Woodrow has the tradition and a really fine team. It will be a great big challenge for us to hang in there with them.”
Still, Justice said he’s excited about his team’s start and the opportunity it has in front of it, and he expects “a madhouse” tonight in Beckley.
“It should be a lot of fun,” he said. “We just have to play our game and take care of the ball.
“We can’t worry about Woodrow. We just have to try to do what we do well.”
Woodrow Wilson head coach Rob Kidd, now in his 12th season with the Flying Eagles, was in Fairlea to witness the Spartans’ 72-57 win over Metrolina Christian (N.C.) in the finals of the Spartan Basketball Holiday Invitational on Saturday, and he was impressed with what he saw.
“They’re pretty good,” said the Beckley coach, who’s won two state championships since taking over for legendary coach Dave Barksdale in 2001. “Anytime you’re 8-0, you’re doing something right.”
Kidd said he was particularly impressed with 6-foot-3 swingman Rondale Watson. A Class AA All-State selection at Oak Hill last year, the junior, who’s averaging 24.6 points per game, could be a state player of the year candidate.
Equally impressive, in Kidd’s eyes, was point guard Bryce Woodliff, another new face in the East lineup. The senior runs the offense well, getting the ball in the hands of the scorers, and he can put points on the board himself when needed. He’s averaging 13.1 points per game and leads the team with 17 3-pointers.
“There’s a whole lot of new faces,” said Kidd. “That makes it different, but it’s still Greenbrier East. We don’t look at the names on the back of their shirts. We look at the names on the front, and we know it’s Greenbrier East.”
One familiar face is 6-9 center Obi Romeo, who seems to be getting a little more comfortable every time he takes the floor. He’s averaging 10.1 points per game, but his scoring isn’t his biggest threat. He also leads the team in rebounds and blocked shots. The last two games, he’s pulled down 35 rebounds and blocked 11 shots.
“He kind of alters shots,” said Kidd. “When you drive in, you’ve got to worry about where he is.”
Justice, who went 13-12 in his first season coaching the boys’ team at East, hasn’t had the luxury of watching the Flying Eagles in person. He had planned to take in Beckley’s game against Huntington last Saturday, but weather forced that contest to be postponed to Friday. With the Spartans playing Capital in the Spartan Basketball Holiday Invitational semifinals, a 73-62 East victory that night, Justice wasn’t able to see that game.
“I haven’t seen them play, but I imagine they force a lot of turnovers and score a lot of points off their defense,” he said. “That’s just Beckley basketball.
Justice’s assessment was perfect. In wins over Wyoming East, Hurricane and Huntington to start the season, Woodrow has given up just 61.7 points per game and converted turnovers into easy points on the other end.
“I really like the way our team’s playing defense at this point,” said Kidd.
The scoring has come from a number of different sources.
Andrew Johnson, who led the Flying Eagles to the playoffs in football as the team’s quarterback and defensive back, has averaged 19.3 points per game and knocked down a team-high eight 3-pointers.
“He’s a real good leader for our team,” said Kidd. “He’s playing extremely well.”
But three other players are also averaging in double figures.
Junior Donté Nabors, part of a legendary Beckley basketball family, is averaging 19 points per game, while an exciting freshman, Nequan Carrington, is scoring 10 per outing.
Brent Osborne, Chase Hancock and 6-4 junior Nick Deems are also major threats.
“I like the balance,” said Kidd. “I don’t really like when one person’s scoring all the points. I like for everybody to do it.”
That depth could be an advantage for the Flying Eagles, but with Obi in the middle, the Spartans come out on top when it comes to size, and they may also be a little more polished with five games already under their belts.
“We know they can play, and we feel we can play,” said Kidd. “They know us and we know them. It’s going to be fun.
“We love playing them, and (East’s 8-0 start), just makes it that much better.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.