Can the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys basketball program beat the State of Ohio’s No. 1-ranked team in the AP Division III Boys Basketball Poll?
Of course they can. Many of the same group of players on this year’s Wheelersburg roster, including Dustin Darnell, Ashton Clevenger, Mack Dyer, Tanner Holden, Cole Lowery, Justin Salyers, and Trent Salyers were all a part of the very unit that took down the state’s No. 1-ranked team in the final AP Division V Football Poll of 2017, Pemberville Eastwood, by a 21-14 tally in overtime during the Division V State Championship Game in Canton.
And with the leadership that each of those players provide, along with the abilities that J.J. Truitt and Connor Mullins, among others, bring to the table, one can never count the Pirates out of any contest, even if it will be, from an admission by Steven Ater, a tall task.
Yes, the Canal Winchester Harvest Prep Warriors’ boys basketball program is 27-0. Yes, six of Harvest Prep’s 14 players are 6-4 or taller. Yes, 13 of Harvest Prep’s 14 players are upperclassmen.
But make no mistake about it — Ater and his staff are confident in the philosophies that got them here.
“It’s going to be a tall task, but the gameplan definitely doesn’t change from Harvest Prep to most other teams that we face,” Ater said. “The things that have gotten us here and have allowed us to be as successful as we are will have to be done on Wednesday evening, and possibly to another level. The same gameplan will apply here, as well.”
That gameplan will need to be executed in as crisp of a manner as one has been all season by the Pirates, especially considering the fact that Harvest Prep is at its best when it runs.
The Warriors, who have won 25 of their 27 contests by a double-digit margin, are averaging a staggering 89.6 points per contest and have scored at least 100 or more points in nine of its 27 affairs — or exactly a third of their bouts over the course of the 2017-18 campaign. Harvest Prep has also put up at least 90 or more points in five additional bouts during the year behind the play of Division III First-Team All-Central District honorees Christopher Anthony, a 6-0 sophomore guard who averages 20.2 points per bout, and Claudio Penha, a 6-5 senior forward who averages 19.5 points per contest.
Division III Central District Honorable Mention talents Brandon Beavers, a 6-2 junior forward, and Soul Hines, a 6-4 junior guard, along with 6-6 senior forward Isaiah Cumberland, are also talents that are at their best out in transition with their lengthy frames.
“We have to keep Harvest Prep out of transition,” Ater said. “They’re really good. When you give them live-ball turnovers or if you take long shots that turn into quick outlet passes and turn into transition points for them, they’re really good there. They shoot the basketball well and they can drive and create for others, so we’re going to have to keep the basketball in front of us, be there on the catch-and-shoot opportunities, and really limit their possessions to one-and-done trips. They really kill you because they’ve got the length and size to just go out and grab those second and third opportunities and get a score off of those.”
Harvest Prep’s offensive efficiency, however, is only matched by its defensive prowess. Overall, David Dennis, Sr.’s club has only given up 47.6 points per bout across the entire year, with its lengthy and experienced lineup causing multiple headaches for the opposition. In fact, the Warriors, over seven of their last 12 affairs, have given up 40 points or less, and have given up 50 points or less in four of the remaining five bouts.
“With their style defensively, they’re going to pressure you and try to, like Piketon, speed you up,” Ater said. “However, they’re able to do it with better athletes. They try to force you to drive the ball where they’ve got someone waiting to trap you when you do drive it into the lane. The guy that’s waiting to trap you, however, isn’t 6-0. He’s 6-5 or 6-6.”
However, while Piketon’s frontline, and its entire unit, in general, is certainly smaller than the Harvest Prep frontline that Wheelersburg will be going up against on Wednesday evening, the Pirates have handled the “throw the ball out and play” mantra well, especially during the second half of games as Wheelersburg began to impose its will on opponents.
Against Lynchburg-Clay and Piketon, the Pirates outscored the Mustangs and the Redstreaks by an 82-48 margin in the second half — including a 39-20 mark in the fourth quarter of both contests combined — en route to the school’s 19th district championship in the sport.
“Our guys deserve a lot of credit,” Ater said. “When they really sit down and guard, we can really get after opponents and force turnovers. We have good athletes ourselves and good length on the perimeter and inside.”
That is arguably no more evident than the play that each player has provided in their roles, especially among the players who haven’t received as much press clippings from a scoreboard standpoint.
Mack Dyer’s toughness and willingness to bang around inside and dive on the floor to preserve or gather in possessions, along with Connor Mullins’ ability to take care of the basketball and step in the passing lanes, have been critical for the Pirates. The three-point shooting and offensive IQ that Dustin Darnell and Trent Salyers have brought to the table, along with the energy and hustle that Justin Salyers has added down low, have also been critical components to the postseason run. Then, there’s J.J. Truitt, who has been absolutely huge as a legitimate 12 to 15-point per game threat during the three-game postseason spurt.
“Mack Dyer’s one of those guys that won’t get a lot of recognition in the scoring column, but defensively, he really uses his athleticism effectively to disrupt offenses,” Ater said. “Sometimes, he’s on the best team’s scorer, and does a good job of creating a deflection or getting a rebound that will get us out in transition. Connor does a great job of denying hard and getting out in the passing lanes, which has created deflections that have led to turnovers and transition baskets. I thought that Connor did a good job in transition against Piketon too. He got out and got a couple of baskets himself, but also threw a lob to Tanner on an and-one basket there when we made our run. Those types of plays are evidence as to why we are where we are. We’ve had a lot of guys doing a lot of little things that have helped us be as successful as we are.”
Of course, one can’t also forget about the very players that make the Wheelersburg engine run so soundly — Tanner Holden and Cole Lowery. When it became winning time in the Division III, Athens I District Championship bout against Piketon, Holden scored 17 of his 24 points of the second half, while Lowery added nine of his 14 tallies in the final pair of stanzas against the Redstreaks.
“Tanner’s a great player,” Ater said. “He’s a Division I player in the future if he keeps working at it. He’s used to being the best athlete on the floor, but on Wednesday, there are going to be a couple of guys who are, at least, equal athletically and sizewise to him, but he’s played a lot of basketball against a lot of high-level competition across the United States, so we expect to put the ball in his hands, go in, and make plays not only for himself, but others, and I believe that Cole can do the same thing for us. Guys like Cole, J.J., Connor, Trent, Mack, Justin, and Dustin will be ready when their number is called, and they’re going to step up when their shots and opportunities are there.”
Which makes the knowledge of when to attack, and when to hold the ball and run the offense against a Harvest Prep team that is dangerous on both ends, all the more crucial.
“We have to be good at attacking in a smart manner,” Ater said. “We’ve got to do a good job of getting the ball to the right people in the right places. We’re confident in all of our guys being able to shoot the basketball, and with it being our third game at the Convo, we’ve had some success shooting the ball there and are comfortable shooting the ball there. Can we do it against their athleticism and pressure? That will be a challenge for us.”
The challenge, however, is one that Ater knows that his team will have to accept if it wants to climb the mountain that is desired.
“At this point, the kids have added a 19th district championship to the mantle, so they’ve began to build a bit of a legacy here and a sense of pride,” Ater said. “It’s nice for them to come back here, be able to point to those numbers on the wall, and say, ‘Hey, that’s a team that we were a part of back in the day.’ That’s part of it. We’ve talked about not being satisfied with stopping there, and saying, ‘Hey, let’s try to add a banner on the wall in the shape of the State of Ohio to join those other ones up there. It’s a big task that’s ahead of us, but some of those teams that have been to the state tournament for Wheelersburg in the past faced teams that were similar to Harvest Prep, and had to go through them as well. We’re going to have to do the same thing.”
And one should best believe that there will be a large Wheelersburg contingent rooting the unit on.
”With them being No. 1 in the state, we’re going to be pretty heavy underdogs, but we’re also playing in the same place that we played our district games, and we’re playing in an area where we’re going to have local fans that will be there to support us and be behind us,” Ater said. “Hopefully, some of that energy will carry us. I thought that our crowd was great for the district final. Everybody wore their orange and came out to a tremendous turnout, and the student section was tremendous and loud. That type of energy can provide a pretty good atmosphere for our guys and get them pumped up to play.”