When it comes down to teams that simply produce results across the board, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ athletic program just seems to produce winning results more than most athletic programs do.
Now, in Steven Ater’s fifth year as the head coach of the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program, it looks like the roundball is beginning to officially catch back on as well.
Wheelersburg, who enters a Division III, Athens I District Final against the Piketon Redstreaks’ boys basketball program on Saturday at 6:15 p.m. with a strong mark of 36-11 all time at the Convo, can increase that all-time leading win total to 37 and get back to regional competition for the first time since 2014 — Ater’s first year at the helm — with a victory on Saturday evening.
However, to do that, the Pirates will have to stop a man that has seemingly proven to be, well, next to unstoppable during Piketon’s tournament run — Tanner Perdue.
The 6-2 forward, who is averaging 25.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per contest per contest on 58 percent shooting, has done everything except filling up the Gatorade cooler on gamedays. That’s evident in the simple fact of his points per game average in the fourth quarter alone — 14.5 — in the Redstreaks’ two come-from-behind victories against West and Albany Alexander.
“Perdue is a great player and scores in so many different ways,” Ater said. “He is an excellent driver, can post up, is a great offensive rebounder, gets to the free throw line, and hits jump shots over top of you. You have to try to limit his touches as best as possible, and when he does get it, you better be solid and keep him in front of you. They are an excellent transition team and they use their defensive pressure to turn you over and create more scoring opportunities for everyone. They play very hard and are very confident, so we have to match their intensity and not allow them to make the runs that they have been successful at making throughout the season.”
But with how successful Wheelersburg has been in all of its team sports, it almost feels as if the basketball program is underrated a bit — and that’s a big mistake for anybody to make. Junior forward and Division I prospect Tanner Holden is averaging a double-double with his 17.6 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.2 steals, and a block per game on 58 percent shooting and will be the main name that pops into people’s heads, but make no mistake about it — his friends can ball, too.
Senior guard Cole Lowery, another multi-sport standout, is averaging 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds, and two steals per game on 37 percent shooting, while freshman forward JJ Truitt, who has played beyond his years for Wheelersburg, is averaging 10.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game — and has also added a team-high 18 charges taken to go along with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Connor Mullins, Trent Salyers, and Dustin Darnell all are the quintessential guards to run Ater’s system and add strong strokes from beyond the arc as well. And last, but not least, there’s Justin Salyers and Mack Dyer, who, despite being undersized on most occasions, have won their fair share of battles down in the low post.
“Teams have tried to junk us in different ways and gameplan to take away Tanner and Cole,” Ater said. “However, it is really tough for teams to focus their attention on those guys when JJ, Connor, Trent, Mack, Justin and Dustin have all proven that they can score in a variety of ways to hurt you. Our ball movement and trust in one another has built throughout the year, and we have confidence that if we make the extra pass, our teammate will make the shot or that the ball might work its way back around. We will need a total team effort again if we want to advance on past a really good Piketon team.”
And when the Pirates overcame a 25-24 halftime deficit to defeat Lynchburg-Clay going away, it was the ball movement in the third quarter that set Wheelersburg apart. A 12-2 spurt to begin the second half — and a 23-point third-quarter where five different players scored overall — was critical for the Pirates in their victory.
“Piketon is definitely a team that can make a run at any point,” Ater said. “They have had to come from behind in both of their tournament games, so there is no relaxing point with this team. It will be about controlling the tempo and not allowing them to speed us up into playing too fast. We have to make sure we settle in and are comfortable playing against their pressure so we get shots on our terms. When we have been successful we have been really great about moving the basketball and creating shots for each other and I think we really demonstrated that against Lynchburg-Clay in the third quarter.”
Keeping the ball hopping — and taking care of it while doing so — will be huge against a Redstreaks’ unit that lives off of turnovers. Perdue’s 2.9 steals per contest, Alex Blanton’s 2.3 rips per affair, the 18 charges taken by Blake Reader, and the on-ball defense that Tanner Veach, Scott Lightle, Austin Taylor, and Issac Little have supplied have been huge in the 24-7 and 26-4 fourth-quarter runs that Piketon made against the Senators and the Spartans in their postseason victories so far.
“We better take care of the ball on Saturday, or we will have a lot of problems because Piketon will take any mistake and turn it into points,” Ater said. “We have to be very solid and fundamentally sound against their pressure to keep that from happening. Defensively, we better play hard because they have a lot of different guys who can hurt you either by driving the basketball, getting on the glass or knocking down shots.”
And playing solid, fundamental basketball will be necessary for Wheelersburg over the entire 32 minutes against a Redstreaks’ unit that hasn’t turned in the towel yet.
“We need to realize the opportunity we have in front of us to compete for a district title and the chance to continue our season,” Ater said. “If you are playing basketball in mid-March, then you have had a special season. I hope that the guys will continue to value having those special opportunities. We have a tough opponent who is the No. 1 seed in our bracket standing in our way, so it will be a tough task. However, we have to come out and play like we have prepared and put together our best 32 minutes of the season if we want to advance on.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT