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Poca’s McKneely claims Bill Evans Award as state’s best

— by Rick Ryan, Charleston Gazette-Mail

Isaac McKneely learned a lot this season, and it wasn’t just where he intends to play in college.

No, Poca’s junior guard picked up lessons about both basketball and life in general as he and the Dots navigated COVID-19 delays, roster changes, buzzer beaters and his own assortment of injuries to return to the Class AA championship game.

McKneely, the centerpiece of that journey for the Dots with a 21.8 scoring average and 62 3-pointers, has been selected as the winner of the Bill Evans Award as the top player in West Virginia, becoming the first to be so honored from a Poca program that has produced several Division I athletes.

His margin in the voting, done by members of the West Virginia Sports Writers Association, was noticeably one-sided. Finishing far back in the balloting were the other members of the top five — in order, Bryson Lucas (Robert C. Byrd), Jaelin Johnson (Fairmont Senior), Jaidyn West (Notre Dame) and Austin Ball (Man).

“To win state player of the year, that’s a big blessing,” McKneely said. “It’s amazing to hear. But I couldn’t do it without my teammates and coaches. They were awesome all year.”

McKneely, who stands 6-foot-3 and possesses remarkable shooting range, also averaged 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists and took care of a lot of the team’s ball-handling duties.

The Dots went 13-5 against a formidable schedule, playing 11 games against state-ranked teams and beating the likes of Class AAA champion Shady Spring in the regular season and splitting with Nitro and Notre Dame. Two of their losses came at the final buzzer. They made it back to the state finals for the first time since 2016 by edging Charleston Catholic 42-40 in the AA semifinals on a McKneely 3 with 1.7 seconds left. Poca then fell to No. 1-ranked Williamstown 50-47 in the title game.

That was the end of the line for a season that had innumerable stops and starts for the Dots, most of them related to COVID-19. The pandemic pushed the beginning of the statewide season from early December to March 5 and later included two shutdowns for Poca, one of which wiped out the final four regular-season games.

There were highs and lows all over the place for McKneely and the Dots. McKneely became so frustrated in late December when Gov. Jim Justice delayed prep basketball season seven more weeks that he took to Twitter and declared: “I’m done,” hinting he would look for somewhere out of state to play. But that disappointment was temporary and he never left Putnam County. His mother and father, after all, are both Poca graduates with a strong sense of community.

On Jan. 30, McKneely announced on Twitter that he’d decided to accept a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia, one of 20-plus Division I offers he’d received.

Once the season started, there were a few more setbacks. After three games, Dots returning point guard Noah Rittinger left the team for personal reasons, meaning McKneely would have to share some of the work directing the offense with freshman guard Kambel Meeks. Then came injuries to McKneely’s heel, ankle and hand that for a time, robbed him of some of his explosiveness. But he and the Dots soldiered on.

“This season taught me a lot with the ups and downs,” McKneely said. “The start was delayed and everyone was upset about that. Then we got to start and we had pauses and disruptions on the team. It was definitely interesting. I tried to do whatever I could to help the team win.”

Poca coach Allen Osborne could see that the setbacks were bothering McKneely, but in a way, they were also motivating him.

“He loves to play so much, and that COVID stuff had him so frustrated he could hardly stand it,” Osborne said. “On the court, he had to take on that extra responsibility, and it made him a better player. It improved his game. He was growing mentally and physically.

“He went through some rough times with his injuries, but I think he learned some toughness — a lot of character and a lot of toughness to keep playing. He doesn’t want to let anybody down, especially his teammates. He was learning a lot of things physically and learning a lot of things mentally, on and off the court. He’s a special young man, and a great kid to coach.”

Osborne has tutored a lot of accomplished players during his 40-plus seasons at Poca — a roll call that includes Division I talent such as Tim Dagostine, Tim Lyle and the brother combinations of Elijah and Jason Cuffee, Luke and Noah Frampton and Noah and Ricky Cottrill.

“He’s right there in their class,” Osborne said of McKneely. “He’s probably more of an athlete than any of them. And he’s always wanted to put himself in that elite class and he’s willing to put in the work.”

McKneely said following the state finals loss to Williamstown on Saturday that he’d be back at work Monday, and was true to his word.

“He took [Sunday] off,” Osborne said, “and was almost feeling guilty about taking a day off. That’s what makes him special. His work ethic is outstanding and he loves to play, has a great passion for the game.”

McKneely probably won’t threaten Dagostine’s school record of 2,116 points from 1982-85, in large part because perhaps a dozen games the past two seasons have been called off due to COVID shutdowns. Osborne realizes the expectations will be high for McKneely next season, as the team returns four starters.

“He’s going to have to score next year for us,” Osborne said. “It’s really funny. We came into this season wanting him to shoot more and he only averaged 15 shots a game. It went up one from the year before, 14 to 15.6 shots per game. He’s just a very unselfish player. He cares about his teammates and our team. He’s a team guy first.

“He loves his school and his community and is humble as a kid. A special young man, and I’m tickled to death for him.”

McKneely plans to compete with the Wildcats Select Under-17 AAU team this summer in events in Nebraska and Ohio. But he’s already thinking about next season with the Dots and the attention he’s sure to receive.

“I know that every time I play, I have eyes watching me,” McKneely said. “So I go out and play every game like it’s my last — especially this season because of COVID. That’s why I play my heart out every time I step on the floor.”

McKneely will receive the Evans Award at the 74th Victory Awards Dinner on May 23 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.





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