Princeton basketball

Tigers take to the court... Brandon Lafferty, foreground, Roy Saunders (21) and Tevin Allen (behind Lafferty) handle the ball at the Princeton Senior High School gym on Monday evening.

PRINCETON — For more than two hours on Monday evening, the Princeton Senior High boys’ basketball team had a “get-acquainted” session with their new coach.

Ernie Gilliard’s familiar voice sounded off the cinderblock walls, motivating and exhorting the 2007-08 Tigers through one drill after another.

The first day of high school basketball practice for boys in both Virginias had arrived. The girls in West Virginia started on Nov. 5, while girls in Virginia held their first practices on Monday.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s as simple as that,” Gilliard said after the lengthy practice. “But there’s some promise here, there’s some talent here.

“It’s just a matter of transforming their mindset, from the things they used to do in the past, to the things that this coaching staff feels that they need to do to be successful now.”

“Like anything, when you’ve got a period of transition, there are going to be some good and bad days. So today was just a day for us to get familiar with each other. Now that they understand what we’re looking for, I expect tomorrow to be a better day.”

Gilliard, a 1976 Princeton High graduate, took over the Tigers’ program after a two-year tenure by John Flournoy, who had replaced longtime coach Robert Wray. Gilliard is being assisted by Randy Wilson and Matt Smith.

“This is a homecoming for me,” Gilliard said. “I played here (for Coach Ralph Ball Sr.). Of course, when I was playing, we had lean years also. We won games; we were very (respected and) competitive, but we were not able to get that elusive trip to (the state tournament) in Charleston.”

He knows that will mean getting past a perennially powerful Woodrow Wilson High School team from Beckley.

Gilliard said, “Hopefully, we can do some things that might balance the table. Right now, they are the cream of the crop in terms of Region VII.”

There were 23 out for Monday’s practice.

“That’s very promising,” Gilliard said. “We’ve got two or three kids that, it was very surprising to see them here — kids that we felt, back during the summer, that would definitely help us be successful, that at one time were not planning on playing basketball this year.

“But for whatever reason, they’re here. And we’re glad that they’re here. Their presence can only make us stronger.”

Gilliard has already been working for months with members of the team who did not participate in football or soccer in the fall, through a strength and conditioning program.

“We’ve worked out four days a week since September, lifting two days a week and running two days a week,” he said.

“It’s not like we haven’t been trying to prepare ourselves. We’ve done a lot of drills that, hopefully, will enhance foot-speed and quickness.”

Now they’ve been joined by a number of other Princetonians who need some level of adjustment to the skill set demanded by the game of hoops.

“The football kids may be in shape for football, but basketball’s a little different (type of) running,” Gilliard said. “I noticed that out here. But the one thing I can say about those kids is that there’s no quit in them. They all hung in there.

“Obviously, there is a certain level of conditioning that we’ve established already; we just want to build on that.”

Gilliard coached the Princeton ninth-grade team, and was an assistant in the junior varsity program, in the late 1990s and a couple of years into the 2000s. He is moving over from a successful coaching job at Bluefield High School.

He’s had plenty of chances to observe recent Princeton teams, and changes are already underway. Gilliard said, “The whole ball of wax was, we decided that we’re going to be a little more aggressive, offensively and defensively.

“No longer will we score and retreat. We’re going to score and try to attack some opponents, and hopefully we’re going to create some turnovers and force our opponents into some situations that they’re not comfortable with, and allow that transition game to work for us.”

He said the transition phase had worked against Princeton “in times past.”

He is biding his time before talking extensively to his team about the rich tradition of Princeton basketball. “Sure, we’ve mentioned it some, but I don’t think the gravity of the situation has set in.

“After we make our cut, and we really get down to those individuals who’re going to be part of this team, then I think they will really grasp hold and understand just what we’re trying to re-establish.”

Princeton starts its season Dec. 14 at Riverside, according to the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission website.

— Contact Tom Bone at tbone@bdtonline.com