Ready for the BIG time
AAU, summer camps have players more prepared for state tournaments

BY ERIC HERTER The Dominion Post
Nate Smith won’t be coaching any boys’ basketball teams in this week’s state tournament, at the Charleston Civic Center.
But, plenty of his players will be there.
In fact, four teams with direct — or indirect ties — to Smith, Morgantown AAU or local youth basketball will be making the two-hour trek to Charleston to try and win a state title.
Morgantown, Trinity, Preston and Grafton are separated by roughly 30 miles but they might as well be next door neighbors when it comes to basketball.
Smith, a former MHS standout, runs camps around the area trying to improve player’s basketball techniques.
“I know our kids know a bunch of kids from those other teams,” MHS head coach Tom Yester said. “Matter of fact, I don’t know if there is a team in the state that our kids don’t know somebody on. With the Internet and AAU teams and camps, it’s amazing. It seems like every team we play there is someone that one of our kids know.”
It’s through camps like Smith’s that players get to know one another and also get to improve. As a matter of fact, nearly every coach in the state has his own version of Smith’s camp that he runs in his own backyard as a way to improve his team each offseason.
“Those camps are invaluable,” Yester said. “We had a great run at the end of last year and then we got to build off of that in camp. I know we run one, [Trinity coach] Herman [Pierson] runs one, and of course, [WVU coach] Bobby [Huggins] does, too.”
Those camps also expose players to big-time environments.
Gone are the days of “Hoosiers” like moments when Grafton coach Mike Crutchfield had to worry about how his team would have to react to playing in front of the large Civic Center crowd.
“These kids have played in so many different gyms,” Crutchfield said. “Back when I last brought a team down here [the late 1990s] I can remember being worried about the size of the floor and the crowd. I’m not worried at all about that now.”
Part of that worry was eleminated when the Bearcats built a new gymnasium and even more of that worry was eliminated because Crutchfield said some of his players do get a chance to play outside of Grafton in bigger gyms during the summer.
Needless to say, Crutchfield won’t be breaking out his tape measure like Gene Hackman did in “Hoosiers” to prove that the floor dimensions are the same size when the Bearcats face Wyoming East, at 1 p.m. on Wednesday in Class AA action at the Charleston Civic Center.
Neither will Pierson, who said his young team probably doesn’t even know exactly what it is getting into when it opens Class A play on Thursday, at 9:30 a.m. against Gilbert.
“The first time we went and I had a bunch of sophomores, we took them over to the Coliseum and did a couple of things,” Pierson said. “I think the big thing is to just keep them loose and focused on just playing the game.”
The game, after all, is the reason why everyone is heading to Charleston.
Preston coach Barry Sanders has the Knights back in the state tournament for the first time since 2005 and said the key is to play under control once you get there. The Knights have a tough task as they face Capital at 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday in the Class AAA tournament.
“The kids are going to be used to playing in a big arena, that’s not new,” Sanders said. “We just have to be able to handle Capital’s pressure and worry about our game and what we can do and what we can control.”
Yester, who is a veteran of the state tournament and will be making his 14th appearance as the Mohigans play Robert C. Byrd at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, said coaches also must expect the unexpected.
“You are going to have one player that normally doesn’t score just go nuts down there,” Yester said. “But, you are also going to have one player who always scores that just can’t. It’s just part of the state tournament that you can’t control.”
And that’s what drives the coaches and fans nuts.
It’s why it’s called March Madness.
“People don’t realize how many teams and coaches go their whole lives without going to the state tournament and do a terrific job and don’t get here,” Yester said. “I know that we aren’t big and we aren’t super fast, but I still think we have as good of a chance as anyone.”
That’s a belief that the other three coaches share.
Pierson said he thinks his team has a chance to win the title despite losing to Gilbert by 13 points earlier in the season and also to perennial power Wheeling Central.
Crutchfield said Class AA just might be the best class in the state because of how competitive it is and his team has a chance to win because of the athletes the school has produced.
And if the PHS basketball team can get to the foul line, Sanders likes his team’s chances.
“If we can get to the foul line down at the states, I think we have a chance to win,” Sanders said. “We shoot free throws better than anyone in the state [75 percent] and I think that is good for us. It’s always your goal at the beginning of the year to get this far and once you get this far, you want to go as far as you can.”

Photos by Bob Gay and Todd Flint The Dominion Post
The first time Trinity coach Herman Pierson, left, took a team to the boys’ basketball state tournament, he practiced in the WVU Coliseum to try and better prepare his team for the Charleston Civic Center. Today, playing in a larger arena is less of a concern for local coaches. Players like Preston High’s T.J. Thompson (above left) and Morgantown’s Jay Fletcher (above right) gain an invaluable experience before the high school season even starts by competing in summer camps and on AAU teams, which travel across the country. The Warriors, Knights and Mohigans, as well as Grafton, will try and lean on some of that experience this week when those four teams compete in the state tournament.