— By Gary Fauber, Register-Herald of Beckley

BECKLEY, W.Va. — The population of Webster County is 8,372. On March 16, it seemed every one of them made the 90-mile trip to Charleston to watch their Highlanders make history.

Amid a boisterous sea of red and black, Webster County defeated Parkersburg Catholic 47-40 for the Class A state championship, capping off an undefeated season and the school’s first state title of any kind.

“I was telling someone the other day, when I was standing on the floor before the game when they were singing the (national) anthem, I saw all the fans and it was just unreal, that feeling,” Webster coach Michael Gray said.

The Highlanders had a senior-dominated team, but a head coach is always necessary to pull it all together. Webster had that in Gray, and he has been recognized for his work by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association as the winner of the Van Meter Award.

The award, named in honor of Woodrow Wilson coaching legend Jerome Van Meter, is given annually to the top high school coach in West Virginia.

Gray beat out Parkersburg South wrestling coach Shaun Smith, Herbert Hoover softball coach Missy Smith and Martinsburg football coach Dave Walker.

“That is unbelievable when I think of all the coaches who have been coach of the year,” Gray said. “This is my third year (as a head coach) at the high school level. It’s been a great run so far.”

It will be hard to top what they pulled off this year.

The state title win was Webster’s 28th of the year, making the Highlanders the state’s first boys basketball team to finish 28-0. The last undefeated Class A team was Paden City, which went 27-0 in 1987.

Webster went into the season with an experienced group, but was also bolstered by the return of Dorian Groggs. The senior guard missed the entire 2017-18 season because of a football injury sustained that fall.

The Highlanders immediately showed what they were capable of, scoring at least 90 points in each of their first three games. They were rarely challenged in the regular season, and put the state on notice with a 71-52 win over No. 4 Trinity Christian on Jan. 21 at the MLK Classic at Greater Beckley Christian.

It was Greater Beckley Christian that finally threatened Webster’s run at perfection. The newly-minted No. 1 Highlanders defeated the No. 4 Crusaders 65-64 Feb. 12 in Upperglade behind Cole Taylor’s shot with three seconds remaining.

“These kids were focused all year,” Gray said. “Whenever we talked at halftime or in pregame, everybody was all-in. They were focused and stayed calm. It was actually hard to get these kids pumped up and to celebrate, because they were just ready for the next game.”

The first time Webster even trailed at halftime was in its sectional championship game against Charleston Catholic. The Highlanders outscored the Irish 23-5 in the third quarter and went on to win 74-60.

A week later, Greater Beckley Christian returned to Upperglade for a Region 3 co-final. This time, Webster took control in the final two minutes and won 65-57 to secure its state tournament berth.

“When we beat Greater Beckley Christian in our regional game, it hit me then that these kids were capable of maybe doing something special,” Gray said. “I knew they had it in them.”

The Highlanders defeated St. Marys in the state quarterfinals and survived a semifinal challenge from Trinity Christian before winning 45-42 to set up the history-clinching day against Parkersburg Catholic.

Only then did they finally celebrate.

“There at the end, when we knew we were about to win the state title, they started showing the emotion we wanted to see all year,” Gray said. “They are just a quiet bunch of kids.”

Gray will be presented with his trophy at the 73rd annual Victory Awards Dinner Sunday, May 5, at Embassy Suites in Charleston.