By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON — It has to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment.
Exactly one year ago today, the Blue-field Beavers’ basketball team sat in chairs on the court at the Charleston Civic Center and glumly accepted their runner-up trophy and medals, while watching Tug Valley celebrate a Class AA state championship.
The Beavers decided right then they would be back in Charleston a year later, and they wouldn’t leave with a loss.
Bluefield looked like a different team from the first two rounds of the state tournament on Saturday, as the Beavers played loose and relaxed and looked the part of the Class AA state champions in an impressive 63-43 victory over Fairmont Senior.
The Beavers won state championships in 1995 and ’96, and then reached the finals four more times and fell short each time, including a loss last year to Tug Valley.
That championship drought had reached 17 years, and former players hadn’t been shy about reminding them of how long it had been.
“They come and talk to us in the offseason and tell us to work hard,” Bluefield junior D.J. Edwards said. “We knew we really had to do it at the end of the year and do it for them too.”
They did it well. Bluefield, which finished the season with a 25-3 record — with all three losses coming to Class AAA competition — played its best down the stretch, rolling past James Monroe, PikeView and Wyoming East by a combined 90 points in the sectionals and regionals, earning a return visit to Charleston.
Bluefield, which had been the top-ranked team in the state for most of the season, was the favorite, and everyone was shooting for the Beavers. They beat North Marion and Robert C. Byrd, but the Beavers admittedly didn’t play well in either game.
They did on Saturday. Three Beavers scored in double figures, led by Anthony Eades (27), Lykel Collier (12) and Corey Coppola (12), who may have been the missing piece for Bluefield after he transferred from Graham prior to this school year.
“We prepared well this morning in practice. We had two bad games in this tournament,” Eades said. “We struggled against RCB and North Marion so we knew we had to step it up.
“I told my teammates to look for me and they did a really good job of getting me the ball and setting screens for me and stuff like that.”
Not only did Bluefield shoot 50 percent for the game — by far its best performance in the tournament — but they also drew a pair of charges to saddle Fairmont Senior top scorer Travon Horton with foul trouble.
He had just four points in the game, and the Beavers outscored the Polar Bears 17-7 over the final five minutes of the first half to take a 36-23 lead into the break.
“We just knew we had to come out hard, that the main thing,” Eades said. “We rested well last night which helped us out a lot and we just came to play today .”
The second half was simply waiting for the clock to tick down to zero. The Beavers scored the first six points of the third quarter, and never allowed the Polar Bears to get any closer than 15.
Much like the Bluefield motto of ‘We Believe’, the Beavers played like this was their championship to win in the 100th year of the West Virginia boys state tournament.
“We beat a very, very well-coached high school team,” Bluefield head coach Buster Large said. “These true believers made believers out of a lot of people today.”
They did it by scoring and they did it with defense, slowing down Fairmont Senior, which had three losses to Class AAA squads among its six defeats during the season. They had reached the championship game by using a second quarter spurt to defeat Bridgeport in the semifinals 65-58.
“We knew that they had speed and we have speed. I was very impressed with them yesterday and what they did running up and down the floor and getting easy layups,” Large said. “We also knew they were going to push the ball and early in the first quarter they were pushing the ball … .
“Once we were able to get back on defense and slow them down a little bit, we were able to get a few rebounds and get out to a 13-point lead by halftime so that made a big difference right there.”
Bluefield was able to win a state championship against a Final Four field of three schools that were playing Class AAA ball last season.
“It is the greatest feeling in the world, and I want to enjoy it,” Large said. “I want the community to enjoy it. I want these kids to enjoy it because we have had a lot of people wanting this.”
Now those people will want another one. That is how sports is. Just minutes after Bluefield won this title, the Beavers were being asked about next year.
No wonder. All five starters will be back, and the goal these players set years ago will endure again.
“We are going to celebrate this one for a while, but when we get back in the gym we are going to work harder for next year to get back-to-back state championships,” Eades said. “All of us are close. We have been talking about this since we came up to high school.
“We said we have got a great chance to win a state championship and we are here.”
It wasn’t easy to win this state championship, and it will be even harder in 2014.
“I hope we come back, but we still have to keep working,” Bluefield junior Michael Yost said. “All the other teams are going to keep working and keep working. Last like year we knew we can’t lose again so all these other teams are going to come out and hopefully we can just come back and just win it again.”
How long before the work begins for next season?
“I guess we will take a couple of months off,” said Bluefield junior Lykel Collier.
“You know that ain’t true,” said Large, with a laugh.
“We will take some time off, work on some things that we need to work on, get bigger and stronger,” continued Collier. “We know it is going to be hard getting back to Charleston because teams are going to be ready for us and want to knock us off.”
Yost injured his ankle late in the win over Fairmont Senior, but was like the rest of the Beavers after the game, enjoying being surrounded by supporters from Bluefield who made the two-hour drive to Charleston.
“I love our fans, I am glad they are here and we finally pulled it out for them this year,” Yost said. “This is for them.”
As for the ankle? What injury?
“I am fine,” he said, with a smile. “Nothing will hurt right now.”
Not only will the Bluefield players not settle for not putting in the work to do it again, but neither will the coaches, which includes Large and his capable staff of Tony Webster, Don Jones and David Hubbard.
“I am very proud of how our kids listened to the coaches. They went out and performed for the coaches…” said Large, who just completed his fifth season with the Beavers. “My coaches have done an outstanding job, I just feel like I have one of the best coaching staffs in the state of West Virginia.”
They also have one of the best teams in West Virginia. Actually, THE best in Class AA.
What do they do for encore? They’re already thinking ahead.
“That is the motivation, try to repeat, just like the ’96 team,” Collier said. “We have got most of our guys coming back so they will be good. We just want to come back and repeat.”
“It is the best feeling,” added Edwards.
The Beavers should know.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at email@example.com.