Kevin Colley, Staff Writer
WHEELERSBURG — As with most every sport, the game of basketball is constantly evolving, and in effect, teams and coaching staffs have to evolve with it.
Over the course of the season, the Wheelersburg Pirates’ boys and girls basketball programs have been difficult matchups for their opponents, not only because of their skill level and floor spacing in a position-less basketball era, but also because of their hard work and determination to return to the top of the mountain in SOC II competition.
Sitting with a combined 44-4 overall and a 27-1 mark between in SOC II contests, members of the Wheelersburg community celebrated not one, but two Gold Ball deliveries last Friday as the Pirates were greeted to a ceremony that honored their achievements.
However, the hopes of Ellie Kallner and Trent Salyers, along with their teammates, rest on their teams making a deep tournament run.
“It’s honestly a great feeling because, as a whole, we have put in a ton of work and pushed ourselves throughout the whole season,” Kallner said. “So winning the title showed us all that we are capable of going far in the tournament. We were kind of like underdogs coming into this year, and being able to stay focused has allowed us to be in the position we are in now. Plus, I love the girls on my team and we wouldn’t have been able to win the SOC II without the connection we have on and off the court.”
Salyers echoed those sentiments.
“It means a lot to our team, and especially our seniors,” Salyers said of the boys’ success, where Wheelersburg capped off its first undefeated regular season in 31 years last week. “We feel like we’ve had the players during our time to have some better seasons than we’ve had, so to give our community and our coaches what they’ve been waiting for means everything to us. However, a long run in the tournament means more to us than a regular season record.”
FINDING THEIR WAY
For Wheelersburg’s girls basketball program, a big question mark coming into the season was how they were going to replace the losses of Ellie Ruby and Leann Spradlin, who were the team’s two departing senior hands from last season’s roster.
Spradlin was critical as a floor-spacing forward who could knock down the 3-point shot while Ruby, a two-time state track champion in the Division III ranks, left the school as one of its best student-athletes regardless of sport.
With Abbie Kallner, Kaylee Darnell, and Ellie Kallner back, Wheelersburg knew it’d have three key players. But they needed additional roster members to step up in order to match and improve on their district semifinal appearance from 2017-2018.
It’s clear that’s exactly what has occurred.
While both Kallner sisters and Darnell have certainly provided the punch expected, the maturation in Karlie Estep, Lauren Jolly, and Lani Irwin’s games weren’t expected. And the same could be said for Alaina Keeney, who, like the aforementioned, has had a strong second half as a freshman.
Estep’s gritty work in the low post, along with the on-ball defense and ball-handling of Jolly and Irwin, and the overall feel for the game that Keeney possesses, have been critical. That’s especially true over the Pirates’ eight-game winning streak.
According to Kallner, it’s all a credit to Wheelersburg’s chemistry as a unit.
“From the start, we all seemed to click, so to be able to grow an even stronger relationship throughout the season has helped us more than anything,” Kallner said. “It’s a nice feeling to know your teammates have your back in any situation, on and off the court. We all support each other. We always hype each other up after a big play or if someone had a great game, everyone always lets them know.”
Big wins, however, have certainly helped that cause.
After dropping two contests to Alexander and Oak Hill by a combined three points during the first week of the season, the Pirates have learned from those experiences and have progressed as a unit … as its 19-2 record since that time would suggest.
Included in that 19-2 mark was a victory over Olive Hill (Ky.) West Carter, which just wrapped up its second consecutive 62nd district championship and is considered by many to be, at the worst, a top-three team in the entire 16th Region in the state of Kentucky.
Wheelersburg also wrapped up an impressive 10-point [52-42] victory over Oak Hill at home, and has dovetailed those victories with a sweep of district semifinalist Minford and a victory over Ironton, who battled Lynchburg-Clay to a five-point margin before falling in the sectional finals.
“I believe that it’s a tie between the win at home against Oak Hill and the win at Ironton against West Carter,” Kallner said of Wheelersburg’s girls’ biggest victory of the season. “The Oak Hill game was big and it was a huge win for us in order to achieve the SOC title. Oak Hill has a lot of good athletes and a very good coach, so being able to overcome the one-point loss at their place showed a lot of growth within our team. Then, the West Carter game was one of the best team games we played this year. That win gave us a lot of confidence for tournament time because West Carter is a very good team in Kentucky and they prepared us for what to expect moving forward.”
Wheelersburg’s overall skill level, however, has also been a plus. The Pirates, who run a four, and at times, a five-out system, rely heavily on each of their main seven rotational players to bring crisp passing, ball-handling, and floor spacing to the table.
“Coach has told us all season that besides rebounding and putting the ball in a basket, taking care of the ball is the most important thing we can do in the game,” Kallner said of Dusty Spradlin’s instructions. “I think we all have made an effort to make sure that we stay under control and make sure the ball is getting where we want it. Another thing coach emphasizes is defense. Defense is the most important aspect of the game, so being able to take control on the defensive end helps us tremendously on offense.”
SETTING A STANDARD
Speaking of floor spacing, Wheelersburg’s boys program has been more than effective in that area.
Thanks to the unique talents that Tanner Holden -— who has supplied two different 50-point games during the 2018-19 season — brings to the table, alongside the abilities of JJ Truitt, Trent Salyers, Connor Mullins, and Dustin Darnell, the Pirates are averaging 70.8 points per contest offensively.
But while most may be fixated with its offensive firepower, Wheelersburg’s defense has been solid in its own right to say the least.
Despite playing at an up-tempo style, the Pirates are giving up just 47.7 points per game, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned, along with gritty combo forward Justin Salyers, rim-running big man Carter McCorkle, Matthew Miller, and Ashton Clevenger, who, along with the regular five starters, have supplied big minutes at different points throughout the year.
It’s led to a 23-0 record and a season-ending No. 3 AP Poll ranking in Division III.
It comes down to the accepting and understanding of different roles.
“Knowing your role is definitely a key part to being a successful team,” Salyers said. “We have unselfish guys that don’t care to give up a little bit of shine in order to make the plays that are better for our team. We have different guys that can do different things on different nights, which makes us an extremely hard team to beat.”
And much like their female counterparts, it’s the four and five-out systems that has lifted the Pirates throughout the year.
In 21 of its 23 affairs, Wheelersburg has scored at least 65 points or more, and in 19 of them, the Pirates have won by 10-plus points.
“Our coaches have done a great job this year putting emphasis on spacing and timing in our offense,” Salyers said. “That, along with a lot of summer skill development, has shown in our play throughout the season.”
That development over the summer has been huge, because it’s usually the only extended period of time, other than the actual season itself, where the program is together as a team.
Six of the team’s nine key rotational pieces — including Clevenger, Darnell, Holden, Miller, and both Trent and Justin Salyers — have been busy extending Wheelersburg’s greatness on the football gridiron.
Clevenger, Darnell, Holden, and both of the Salyers just finished a four-year span where the Pirates went 52-4 with four SOC II Championships, three regional titles, and a 2017 Division IV State Championship in their back pocket.
So the summer, when schedules have been less hectic, is where the Pirates have made their hay on the court.
“It helps a ton because we usually get off to a late start during the regular season because of football,” Salyers said. “So the summer is when we do most of our bonding and really build the chemistry that every team needs.”
No matter the sport, it’s abundantly clear that Wheelersburg takes a great deal of pride in winning … regardless of how the ball is shaped or formulated.
That was, again, on display last Friday when an estimated crowd of 450 people showed up to cheer the SOC II champions in both boys and girls basketball for the 2018-19 season — and continues to be an example of why Ellie Kallner and Trent Salyers take so much pride in representing their school.
“The ceremony showed us all that our community is behind us through it all, and as we go into the tournament,” Kallner said. “Every game we play in both boys and girls basketball, we always have people show up and support us. The ‘Burg community is one of the best, because no matter what sport you play, there will always be somebody supporting you.”
The quality, however, the pair have learned most from their community, is savoring and appreciating each game as it comes and not overlooking or underestimating anybody that’s next up on the docket.
“I look forward to getting better each game,” Salyers said. “We’re focusing on each of our opponents, one at a time, and enjoying one last ride at the Convo.”