WHEELERSBURG — So what will Wheelersburg do for an encore?
Well, that’s going to be up to the new cast of Pirates.
While Wheelersburg went undefeated through 27 games, captured the Southern Ohio Conference Division II championship, and advanced to its second consecutive Division III regional tournament including last season’s title tilt, the Pirates did graduate five seniors.
The lead actor was six-foot six-inch Tanner Holden, who poured in an average of 27 points per bout —and was the Division III Southeast District Player of the Year and first-team all-Ohioan.
But Holden now stars for Wright State University, and other supporting cast members moved on thanks to graduation.
However, each new season — like each new screenplay —presents plots, and so Wheelersburg will need to produce its own new meshing and direct its own new year.
This season’s Pirates, guided once again by coach Steven Ater, are attempting to intertwine three good returning players with a good group of junior-varsity moveups.
With the middle of November arriving, the full contingent of Pirate players practiced as a whole for the first time the week before Thanksgiving —following the football team’s loss in the state playoffs on exactly Nov. 16.
“We have some guys that have been with us for a couple of weeks already, and then some new faces joining us starting this week,” said Ater, prior to the Friday for the Southern Ohio Conference Preview. “It’s nice because everybody that is practicing with us right now has at least been through one season or multiple seasons or summers with us. The biggest thing for us is we have a lot of new faces to the varsity level, so we’re trying to form a chemistry and bond and figure out who can step out there game one and feel comfortable playing in a varsity game.”
To answer that question right now, the weekend before Thanksgiving to be exact, would probably be the three returning Pirates — 6-3 junior forward J.J. Truitt, 6-4 junior forward Carter McCorkle and 6-0 junior guard Matthew Miller.
Truitt, a second-team all-Southeast District selection by the Ohio Prep Sportswriters’ Association, is easily the most experienced Pirate — after averaging 13 points per game as a sophomore.
“J.J. is a two-year starter for us, but now with some of our other kids graduated, he will take on every team’s best defender and get everyone’s top gameplan option. But he is more explosive athletically, he’s grown a little bit, still makes great decisions with the ball, is a great ball-handler and penetrator and finisher and obviously he can step outside and shoot it,” said the coach. “He has really developed his game, which he needed to, given all the attention other teams will give him this year.”
McCorkle and Miller played limited roles off the bench during the regular season, but gained valuable varsity time during the Pirates’ tournament trail.
Miller missed all of football season with an injury, but is back healthy on the hardwood, Ater explained.
“Carter kept developing as we had to have him on the floor for his length, his rebounding, his ability to alter shots in the paint, and to score around the basket. He just continued to develop and get better. Then Matthew is the quin-essential six-foot point guard. He has grown and filled out a little bit though, and is not the same skinny sophomore from last year. He’s more athletic and can make more explosive plays,” raved Ater. “We’re excited to mix those three with the most experience with a lot of guys getting varsity experience for the first time.”
Among those moveups are the club’s sole senior — six-foot and six-inch center Corey Maxie.
“Corey has put in the time, gotten better and had a really good offseason with us. He gives us a lot of size in the frontcourt,” said Ater.
The Pirates’ junior circuit — in addition to Truitt, McCorkle and Miller —includes three-year program players Mason Montgomery (5-10), Brayden Wilson (6-2), Jonah Lawson (6-3), Gage Adkins (6-1) and Aaron Jolly (5-8).
The trio of sophomores —which Ater stated are primarily perimeter players which bring ball-handling, shooting and defense to the table — is Aaron Masters (5-10), Eli Swords (5-11) and Josh Clark (5-10), while the lone freshman is 6-1 and highly-touted and traited Kenny Sanderlin.
“The guys moving up have been successful at the lower levels. That doesn’t always translate, but they know what it takes to win and they know what our system is about,” said Ater. “It’s competitive practices, that’s for sure. We have 13 guys going at it every day and we’re just trying to sort it all out right now.”
Ater also was asked about the differences between last season’s squad and this year’s, which revealed some of the team’s strengths.
“We’re longer. You take away one really long athletic guy from last year’s team in Tanner Holden, but as a whole, we are bigger across the board. Maybe we’re a little more athletic on the perimeter, because we think we could see a little more quickness out there guarding the ball,” he said. “Last year’s team had a lot of talent and skill level, but this year’s team we think can have some of those same traits, but also a little more length and athleticism. Maybe allow us to get up and down a little bit more and do different things defensively.”
Speaking of defending, the Pirates are the reigning SOC II champions, having swept two-time defending champion Oak Hill to wrest the crown away from the Oaks.
Wheelersburg — along with Waverly, Oak Hill, South Webster and maybe Minford —are usually the top four or five teams talked about in winning the SOC II.
“It’s going to be a battle night in and night out. Everyone is going to try and take their best shots, knowing that we lost five seniors off last year’s team that went 14-0 in the league,” said Ater. “The pressure heats up, the scouting reports get deeper, and teams will take away certain things and tendencies of ours. But we have to know and learn what our tendencies are too, so we know how to counter them.”
Indeed, although early, it’s already in the making what Wheelersburg will do for an encore.
“We know what we have with the three returnees. We’re not asking our new guys to come in and be those same five seniors, but we ask them to fill some of those same roles,” said Ater. “It’s going to have to be a daily improvement for us figuring things out and getting experience together.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved