CHARLESTON — Thursday morning's loss to George Washington in the Class AAAA state quarterfinal was a painful one for Woodrow Wilson.
But getting the team to this point may have been Brian Nabors' crowning achievement to date as the head coach at Beckley.
He probably won't see it that way, but the truth is very few teams can respond to adversity the way the Lady Flying Eagles did this season. Camille Fenton, Jamara Walton, Keanti Thompson, Cloey Frantz and Sierra Conley — all starters — missed multiple games this season, with another starter in Adriana Law missing the entire season with loose ligaments in her shoulder.
The team adopted the personality of their head coach and even observers from afar have noticed.
"You see it when you watch them play," Summers County head coach Chad Meador said. "They feed off his personality and intensity. They become just like him out there on the court and it's part of why you've seen them become as good as they are. They've taken on his personality."
Battling adversity is something Nabors is familiar with though, as a coach and player.
During his senior year in 1991-92, his Beckley squad lost starters John Payne and Anthony Walters, while Anthony Scruggs also missed seven games. That team was coming off a loss in the 1991 Class AAA state championship game and started the season 1-2. As heavy underdogs, they went on to beat Fairmont Senior in the title game that season.
Despite the injuries and illnesses this season, Nabors guided his team to 13 wins against a schedule that featured eight games against ranked Class AAAA teams, as well as two more against Class AA Wyoming East, which is playing in the state semifinals.
"We're just hoping it can build character," Nabors said after the team's loss to GW. "I thought the state saw some of that throughout the year. We had a lot of challenges in regards to injuries, especially injuries. You've got to understand, we had three girls not dressing that were starters. For young kids not to have experience, it's difficult to respond to situations like that. It's difficult, but at the same time throughout this adversity we're hoping that it builds character and we'll improve for the future."
Leading by seven points in its Region 3 co-final win over Capital, the team lost its best player in Frantz. Nabors' squad responded with a run that put the game to bed, vaulting Beckley to its third state tournament in four years.
But adversity is nothing new for this group.
Under .500 for most of the 2017-18 season and coming off back-to-back four-win campaigns, the Lady Flying Eagles won their sectional championship on the road that year, upsetting a Greenbrier East team that blew them out in their two previous meetings. They parlayed that momentum to a surprise state tournament berth when Liz Cadle hit a game-winning layup against St. Albans in the regional championship.
Last year, after a verbal altercation between a fan and assistant coach Gene Nabors, five players were suspended for leaving the bench area during a stoppage in play against Greenbrier East.
The Lady Flying Eagles responded by thrashing East 78-55 three weeks later for the sectional title, then ousted George Washington the following week.
They then won their first state tournament game since 2008, but the misfortune didn't stop as the season was canceled the following day due to the pandemic.
Graduating two all-staters, the bar was set high for a team with a lot of youth and they met the expectation of returning to Charleston.
Battling injuries and quarantines, each player responded as necessary, even surprising Nabors.
"I'm very proud of Jamara Walton," Nabors said. "Four years ago, and this is the honest truth, I never thought she'd be in the position where she'd be the vocal leader and a positive leader when it comes to encouraging teammates and leading by example. She stepped up to the plate this year ... I think she learned from last year's team with Victoria Staunton and Elizabeth Cadle and that was our challenge this year. Leadership.
"Cloey Frantz wasn't really a vocal type leader, but stepped up and became that vocal type leader for us. And Jamara Walton and Rachel Eans and Sierra Conley, those four seniors all stepped up to help lead our team this year."
Again, their goal was to win a title, but all things considered getting to this point was a win and the experience was valuable. Flanked by Thompson, Ziolkowski and Walton, Nabors echoed that sentiment, hoping his team would learn from it.
"I just hope our kids can learn what it takes to be a bona fide leader," Nabors said. "Physically, emotionally, vocally, and you know it's hard to be a leader. And we just hope that this kid sitting beside (Thompson) can learn from that and become more of a talker. I will say this, she actually spoke up at halftime and we were shocked she spoke up telling the girls we need to talk on defense. So that's a start.
"I think it's good for her and we're looking for Olivia to bring that next year and be a heartbeat for the team like Cloey Frantz has been for us and we believe that Olivia can get it done. She's a hard worker and sacrifices her body for the team as well, So I'm really upbeat for next year's team. I'm ready to get started tomorrow, to be honest with you, and if we could we would, but we'll take a few days off and get back at it and we'll be back."
The Lady Flying Eagles didn't lie down, either, during their trip to Charleston. Down by double digits after the first quarter, they cut the lead to five in the second and played even with the Patriots throughout the second half despite being down 18 at the break. Perhaps most impressive was the play of Thompson, who scored 18 points while being the team's only ball-handler.
"Cloey Frantz is our leader," Nabors said. "She's our bona fide leader. She's the heartbeat of the team. She's the soul of the team and she sacrifices for the team, but I thought Keanti stepped up today through all the adversity she had to go through as far as traps and denying the ball and being the primary ball-handler. I thought she handled herself very, very well."
Even Nabors' peers recognize the feat he accomplished given the circumstances.
"The first thing I'd like to do is give my congratulations to Woodrow Wilson High School and Coach Nabors," GW head coach Jamie LaMaster said. "I know all throughout this year they've fought a lot of adversity through whether it be injuries or Covid and I think he just deserves a tip of the cap to get his team down here and prepare them and battle with all the adversity he had against him."
But again, iron sharpens iron. Many of the players returning have already seen the worst and battled it while playing meaningful minutes on a state tournament team. And they'll have a coach returning with a staff that's shown it can lead in the toughest of times and instill confidence in its players.
"It definitely hurts," Ziolkowski said. "Knowing last year we came and we got cut short with Covid and this year we have this. But it definitely makes me want to come back for my senior year and win it."
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