WHEELERSBURG — After making a regional semifinal appearance in 2018, and suffering a 78-60 loss to Harvest Prep, Wheelersburg has reached the same level this winter.
And last year’s loss still leaves a bad taste in the Pirates’ mouths.
If you’ve followed coach Steven Ater’s group this season, you know the goal is to win a regional title and play in a state semifinal contest. They’d love to take that next step.
But as for now, to even get a shot at getting to Columbus, Sandy Valley stands in their way. That contest, and that contest alone, is what has Wheelersburg’s undivided attention.
“Sandy Valley is long, athletic and physical inside. They don’t let teams score a lot,” Ater said. “They have the ability to play inside out and go into their big guy, who can muscle his way around the rim and crash the offensive glass. They play off him. They can drive and look to find him or beat you one-on-one. They space the floor really well.”
Sandy Valley’s “big guy” would be Bryce Kelly, a 6-foot-6, 200-pound senior. Kelly, alongside senior Dante Tucci and junior Keegan Offenberger, have led the Cardinals to 19 wins this season and the program’s first district title since 1990 — coming in a 67-53 win over Garaway.
“They’re a very defensive-minded team that is playing really well right now,” Ater said. “They’ve put things together there and they’re pretty experienced. It’s a group that’s playing to their potential right now and playing really good basketball.”
The same could be said of Ater’s Pirates. At 25-0, Wheelersburg is still undefeated, still clicking on all cylinders and still hungry for more.
“We want to earn the opportunity to play whoever we have to play in the regional final,” Ater said. “Our goal is to take that next step. We know Harvest Prep put us out last year and we know they could be back in a regional final this year, should they win their [semifinal] game. But we have to practice and play like we’re a team that can win a regional title, no matter who we play.”
Wheelersburg’s Tanner Holden, the Division III Southeast District Player of the Year, is imperative to that movement. But with each opponent focused on stopping Holden, who has habitually created shots and led the team in scoring throughout the tournament run, Ater says the Pirates’ supporting cast has to continue playing at an elite level around their leader.
“Teams are going to load up defensively on Tanner and we have to plan for that,” Ater said. “Through the season, we’ve proven we can do that. Those guys make us a complete team and they make others realize you can’t beat us by just stopping Tanner. Our other guys are capable of shouldering the load when they’re called upon. We’re dangerous when everybody is scoring.”
While Holden, alongside J.J. Truitt, may stuff the stat sheet, role players like Trent Salyers, Connor Mullins, Matthew Miller, Dustin Darnell and Carter McCorkle are just as important.
Take the Pirates’ 53-43 win over Alexander in the district title game for instance, one where Ater praised Miller’s defensive efforts and McCorkle’s ability to provide critical minutes off the bench.
Tanner Holden is really, really good. But make no mistake: when Holden’s isn’t hitting, one of his teammate is.
“We feel like we’re a very positionless basketball team, with the exception of Carter, who is a traditional five. But he’s going to progress to be more of a wing going forward,” Ater said. “When teams are focusing on Tanner, our guys have done a nice job of handling the basketball and getting the opportunity to score for themselves.”
Wheelersburg and Sandy Valley have a scheduled 6:15 p.m. tip, Thursday at the Convocation Center. A win would put the Pirates against either Frankfort Adena or Harvest Prep in a Division III regional final match.
But as for now, Sandy Valley is what the Pirates have their eyes on.
“We’ve really worked hard defensively and we’re communicating better and boxing out,” Ater said. “If we don’t do that well, at any point in this tournament, we could be going home. When can be a complete team when all of our guys are involved and playing their roles. We want to get to a regional final, but to do so, we can’t overlook Sandy Valley. That’s what we’re focused on.”