By Nick Cammuso
Times West Virginian
There is no doubt Marion County’s girls can play basketball with the best West Virginia has to offer.
If that was ever in question, it was put to rest around this time four years ago when Mariah Byard’s jumper dropped through the Charleston Civic Center net to kick-start a run of back-to-back-to-back state titles at North Marion.
Now, it’s appears all set to begin again ... sort of.
While the area didn’t bring home a state championship trophy — unless you count fellow league foe Bridgeport, which wrapped up its first girls’ crown Saturday with a 44-27 pasting of Westside — it has to feel excited about what could happen down the road.
Fairmont Senior is losing two seniors and returns two standout forwards in Emily Stoller and Kaden Whaley, two energy-packed backcourt sparkplugs in Jasmine Johnson and Ty Horton, and several other promising underclassmen.
And the best part — or maybe the scariest if you’re an opposing Big 10 coach — is the fact they’re all sophomores or younger.
No wonder coach Corey Hines called youth the program’s biggest asset after a blowout win over Clay County in Thursday’s first-round tourney game.
Another reason for optimism is watching how the Polar Bears play basketball.
With defense, with rebounding and with an all-out, full-court, gas-pedal-slammed-down-to-the-floor game that leaves most teams catching their breath by the second half. It’s a fast, fun style and one that should cause matchup problems for opposing teams for years to come.
And that certainly could have been the case in Friday night’s 51-41 semifinal loss to Westside as well. However, while FSHS got the fast pace it wanted, it couldn’t find the basket and wound up shooting 28 percent from the floor.
Even during Thursday’s miscue-filled opener in which the two teams committed 59 turnovers, smashing the Class AA state tournament record of 49, the Polar Bears were still playing their game.
As for the North girls, they played their game — shooting 3-pointers — until the end but couldn’t cash in during a first-round state loss to Nicholas County on Thursday morning.
All told, the Huskies made just 1 of 16 threes. Had two or three dropped in, they very well could have advanced to play Bridgeport, a team which beat them by just five in January.
But you have to like North’s shot for a return trip to Charleston going forward. The Huskies lose two key seniors in guards Audia Bartlett and Chelsea Swiger, but return everyone else to team that closed its season by winning 13 of its final 14 games.
On the boys’ side, state tournament play begins this week in the Capital City and North Marion is thinking upset.
The eighth-seeded Huskies take on No. 1 Bluefield at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday; No. 2 seed Fairmont Senior and No. 7 Scott square off at 1 p.m. that afternoon.
The Beavers, last year’s Class AA state runner-up, are 22-3.
"This is the first round. This is like the state championship game to us, so we’ve got to play spoilers and play with an upset mind,” North coach Chris Freeman said after the Huskies outlasted Webster County, 81-78 in two overtimes, for the regional title Friday. “We have to try to find a way to get it done. It doesn't matter where you’re at — in a one and eight, anything can happen."
Bluefield — which has lost twice to Princeton and another time to Greenbrier East — features a pair of dynamic junior guards in Anthony Eades and Lykel Collier.
“They’re the best team in the state — there’s no doubt in my mind,” Freeman said. They’ve been No. 1 almost all season have some great players. (Fairmont Senior’s) Travon (Horton) and Jarin (Hilson) are up there with the two best guards (in the state), but Eades and Collier are both those types of players, too. They're good.”
Also good is former East Fairmont wrestling standout Mason Bailey, who clinched a spot in the upcoming NCAA Tournament with a second-place finish at the EIWAs in Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday.
The Navy senior made it all the way to the 184-pound final before dropping a 7-1 decision to defending national champ Steve Bosak.
Bosak, the second seed, outscored his opponents 21-1 in the tournament.
In all, Bailey and five other Midshipmen wrestlers earned automatic berths in the NCAAs, set for March 21-23 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Email Nick Cammuso at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@NickCammusoTWV.