Photo: Lynchburg-Clay coach Matt Carson celebrates along with his players, coaches, cheerleaders, and fans as the Mustangs count down the final seconds of their 68-50 regional championship victory over Marion Pleasant last Saturday in Athens.
By Jeff Gilliland – firstname.lastname@example.org
The only time other than this year that Lynchburg-Clay reached the state basketball tournament, Joe Wills was in his second year as the coach at his alma mater. Based on what he saw 23 years ago and what he’s seen of this year’s Mustangs, Wills said Tuesday that he thinks this year’s team can win it all.
“I think they can. They’ve definitely been playing well and appear to be a team that’s very focused at this time. I like their chances, and I’d love to see them do it,” Wills said.
If that were to happen the Mustangs would join the 1928 Marshall Red Flashes as the only Highland County schools to win a state basketball championship.
When Wills led the Mustangs to the state tournament during the 1992-93 season, he thought they had a chance to do well, too. But L-C didn’t get past its first game against New Riegel.
The Mustangs jumped out to a 20-7 lead after one quarter, but then got in foul trouble and led just 30-28 at halftime. The game was knotted at 47-47 after three quarters before L-C finally fell 71-67.
“We played really well in the district and regional tournaments and in each game we went on a 20-2 or 18-0 run or something like that. But in that (state semifinal game) we didn’t,” Wills said.
The former L-C coach, who is now the superintendent at Greenfield McClain, said he has followed the 2015-16 Mustangs and sees similarities between them and the state tournament team he coached.
“This group is more athletic than the ‘93 team,” Wills said. “Both teams wanted to win and, you know, a lot of kids really like to win. But some kids really hate to lose, and you can tell both those groups hate to lose. The ‘93 team had that mentality where it’s like, who’s next? After we’d win they say, ‘OK, who’s next and where at?’ This group has that same mentality.”
Wills said that like the team he coached, this year’s Mustangs like an uptempo game and want to run as much as they can. He said he spoke to this year’s team last week after a practice.
“Most of the message was just stay focused,” Wills said. “Don’t think that just because this is the next step in the tournament you have to play differently. And don’t get caught up in all the attention.”
Looking back on his experience at the state tournament, Wills said that if there was any advice he’d give to this year’s Mustangs heading into Thursday’s state semifinal game against Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph (VASJ) it would be to not keep too close track of the game’s score.
“Just keep playing,” he said.
Wills said he thinks it’s good that L-C is coming off playing four tournament games at Ohio’s University’s spacious Convocation Center, which will be similar to the atmosphere at Ohio State’s Value City Arena in Columbus.
“I think that’s an advantage to teams from our area,” Wills said. “I don’t think the environment will overwhelm Lynchburg.”
Wills said he has lots of memories of the six years he spent at Lynchburg-Clay as the varsity basketball coach before taking an administrative position. He said one of them is getting stuck in Athens because of snow. Wills took his state squad to Athens on a Friday night to watch fellow Southern Hills League member North Adams play, then was supposed to play Portsmouth Clay in the district finals on Saturday morning. But overnight a snow storm hit and the Mustangs were stranded in Athens until they finally played on Monday evening.
Still, Wills said what he remembers more than particular games is being around a special group of kids that were successful in the classroom, on the basketball court, and in life after basketball.
Lynchburg-Clay (25-2) plays VASJ (22-5) at 10:45 a.m. Thursday. The winner will play Lima Central Catholic (26-1) or St. Bernard Roger Bacon (21-7) at 10:45 a.m. Saturday.
If the Mustangs can win one or both of those games they will accomplish something that no other Lynchburg team has ever done.
“They have the community and everyone in the area behind them,” Wills said. “Enjoy the time, but stay focused.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.