CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While it remains to be seen which of the eight Class AA teams in Charleston will bring back a state championship, this much is certain — there is guaranteed to be a new champion.
North Marion, which rallied from large deficits in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds a year ago before beating Wyoming East in the title game, was ousted at Frankfort in a Region I co-final last Thursday.
The hardware can still come back to Marion County though, as Fairmont Senior (22-3) enters this year’s state tournament as the top seed. After failing to qualify for states last season, the Polar Bears are bracing for Thursday’s 5:30 p.m. matchup against No. 8 Bluefield (17-8).
The Polar Bears beat the Beavers in the 2017 title game, 54-42.
Bluefield was also the No. 8 seed a year ago and had North Marion on the ropes before falling short, 56-54.
“They’re still very talented and have several players from their team in the championship too, so we know we’re going to have to come in focused and ready to play,” Fairmont Senior coach Corey Hines said. “When you get to this level, I don’t feel you’re just an eight. Everybody has an opportunity and you have to win to stay in, so we’re going to treat them just like they’re a No. 1 also. That’s how we have to treat this game, because they’re coming in ready to play with an excellent program and a great coach.”
Other Class AA affairs on Thursday include: No. 3 Wayne (22-3) vs. No. 6 Sissonville (20-5) at 9:30 a.m.; No. 2 Wyoming East (22-3) vs. No. 7 Bridgeport (17-8) at 1 p.m.; and No. 4 Lincoln (21-3) vs. No. 5 Frankfort (20-4) at 9 p.m.
The Pioneers recently defeated the Indians 72-47 for a sectional championship to go along with a 49-44 victory in the regular season.
Wayne has won eight straight and had perhaps the toughest road of any team to get to this point, defeating Nitro in sectional play and Logan in its regional co-final. The Pioneers are a No. 3 seed for the second straight season after reaching the state tournament for the first time in school history last year.
“It means quite a bit to our team and our community. We were proud to get here last year and getting back was big,” Wayne coach Wade Williamson said. “It confirms that we’re doing things the right way. We’re trying to build a program and not be a flash in the pan.”
In Sissonville, the Pioneers will take on a team fresh off a 60-58 victory at Chapmanville to qualify for the state tournament. Outside of Fairmont Senior, the Indians are the only other team in the Class AA field to not have made it to states a year ago.
SIssonville also had a challenging road to reach this point and picked up an impressive sectional win over Winfield along the way.
“Sometimes you wish you didn’t play the same team three times, but it is what it is,” Williamson said. “We don’t have any choice in that matter and we just have to play what’s in front of us.”
Wyoming East has won seven straight and 19 of 20 since a 3-2 start, while scoring at least 64 points in six of its last seven contests and 72 or more in five of those games.
The Warriors will take on a Bridgeport team that had won eight straight prior to its loss against Lincoln in the sectional title game.
A year ago, after convincing wins against Lincoln in a quarterfinal and Wayne in a semifinal, the Warriors fell short in their quest for a state championship.
“Every team that’s here is a quality team,” Wyoming East coach Angie Boninsegna said. “Maybe the experience of being here and in tough situations will be help us a little bit.”
Bridgeport got back on track with a 44-39 win at Nicholas County in regional play, avenging a 19-point loss to the Grizzlies in the regular season.
“The win at Nicholas County the other night was a really big win for us,” Bridgeport coach Dennis Hutson said. “We had a regular season game down there earlier in the year that didn’t go very well for us. The kids were really gritty and got in what I call our blue collar mode. We were grinding all the way and were fortunate to come out on top.”
The 4-5 game looks to be a toss-up between the Falcons and Cougars.
Frankfort has won eight straight and 18 of 20 since a 2-2 start, including last week’s 71-59 victory that ended North Marion’s season. It marked the second straight year the Falcons have eliminated the defending champion in Class AA.
In Abby Beeman, Frankfort has an explosive guard who surpassed 2,000 points for her prep career earlier this season, but Cougars’ coach Rob Hawkins says his team can’t solely focus on Beeman.
“She has a nice supporting cast, so we’re going to have to see how it’s playing out come game time as far as who we can maybe leave and help off of and who we can’t,” Hawkins said.
After earning the right to stay at home in the regional final with a seven-point victory against Bridgeport, Lincoln edged Braxton County 49-45 for its spot at states.
The Cougars have a regular season win over Fairmont Senior to their credit and bring an eight-game win streak to Charleston as they brace for their fifth straight season playing in the state tournament.
“I thought by this time of year we could be a pretty good team,” Hawkins said. “But we really jelled quicker than I thought we would. We were able to pull off some close ones early in the season and kind of fed off that. I’m not shocked we’re here, but I’m shocked we’re here with 21 wins.”
CLASS AA STATE TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Thursday, March 7
Game 1: 9:30 a.m. – No. 3 Wayne vs. No. 6 Sissonville
Game 2: 1 p.m. – No. 2 Wyoming East vs. No. 7 Bridgeport
Game 3: 5:30 p.m. – No. 1 Fairmont Senior vs. No. 8 Bluefield
Game 4: 9 p.m. – No. 4 Lincoln vs. No. 5 Frankfort
Friday, March 8
Game 5: 11:15 a.m. – Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
Game 6: 7:15 p.m. – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner
Saturday, March 9
2:30 p.m. – Class AA girls basketball state championship