2019 Class AAA champion University ‘overlooked’ after losing four starters

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Nearly twelve months have come off the calendar since Joe Schmidle led his University High School boys basketball team onto the court in a competitive setting. A COVID-lengthened offseason will finally end when the Hawks travel to face Spring Mills on March 5.

Official preseason practices begin for all winter sports teams around the state on Monday. Schmidle has been able to host a pair of conditioning workouts this week.

“It was similar to the summertime when you go a month and a half without seeing your kids between the three-week program and the start of school. After that amount of time, you are like, ‘Holy cow, this kid grew two inches since the last time I saw him’. It was just good to see them all. They are kind of like your family. You are used to seeing them everyday and then you don’t get to see them. You obviously miss them,” Schmidle said.

Schmidle says his players have entered preseason drills in various states of physical condition.

“I had a lot of kids that were sore because they didn’t have access to gyms or weight rooms. We are trying not to do too much too fast.

“Some of my kids haven’t missed a beat. They played AAU and have been traveling to Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Pennsylvania playing all over the place.”

In a normal season, basketball teams usually have around four weeks to prepare for the season. This year, that window is cut nearly in half.

“We are going to have to do things a little bit differently. It is almost like cramming for a test.

“It is going to take a while. I don’t think you are going to see a real polished product on the floor for us the first couple weeks. I am just hoping we can continue to improve as the season goes on. And hopefully, maybe by mid-April, we can be hitting our stride and be ready for the postseason.”

While COVID case numbers statewide and in Monongalia County continue their sharp decline, Schmidle acknowledges that the virus will remain another opponent to face throughout the season.

“In the back of your mind, you have COVID lurking right there. You never know what is going to happen with a player or a group of players that might have been exposed to somebody that just tested positive for COVID. Then they will be out for two weeks. How does that affect the team? How will that affect practice? How are you going to keep everybody on the same page? That’s going to be the hard part.”

University’s Joe Schmidle cuts down the net after winning the 2019 Class AAA title (Photo by Eddie Ferrari)

University remains the defending Class AAA state champion, having won the title in 2019. A senior-heavy 2020 team, led by Division I guards Kaden Metheny and K.J. McClurg, earned the top seed in the state tourney before it was eventually canceled. Schmidle must replace four starters.

“It is almost like you are starting over. That’s a big part of coaching and that is what I enjoy about coaching is the challenge. And a lot of people I think underestimate us as a whole. I think we are being overlooked by a lot of people. We aren’t really getting any attention from anyone. I think the kids know that. Even though we are young, we’ve got some kids that can play basketball.

“When we won the state championship, we lost four starters. A lot of people don’t remember that. A lot of people thought that when Ethan Ridgeway, Clay Bailey, Austin Forbes and Storm Leftridge, when those guys left, ‘Oh you lost everything and you are not going to be any good’. We are kind of in the same boat right now. I hope we have the same result.”

Senior Ryan Niceler is University’s leading returning scorer. He averaged 8.1 points per game last season.

“Ryan is going to have to change his game in a lot of different ways. Ryan has always been kind of a post for us. He is going to be looked at to score more this year, facing the basket and be more of a slasher as a guard. Ryan has kind of taken a back seat to Kaden and K.J. and those guys who scored the ball on a very consistent basis. Ryan has a lot of ability to put the ball in the basket.”

Aaron Forbes, T.T. Brooks and Jaeden Hammack are also returners to the varsity roster. And Schmidle has high expectations for junior forward Blake Barkley.

“I think he is the biggest secret in West Virginia. The kid can play. He can shoot the three and he can play with his back to the basket. He handles the ball well for a bug guy. He reminds me of Nathan Adrian at that age.”

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