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Cougars hoping to pen championship chapter

March 16, 2005|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

SHENANDOAH JUNCTION, W.Va. - The Jefferson boys basketball team is a storybook feature just waiting for a final chapter.

The story of the Cougars has a hint of one of those Hollywood underdog features - the ones everyone says they hate, but they watch anyway. Jefferson is that highly talented but underachieving team that finds focus, unity and direction and goes on to great things and a memorable finish.

Jefferson has fulfilled 80 percent of the story this season. Now, the Cougars are out to author their own happy ending when they play defending champion Woodrow Wilson on Thursday at 11:15 a.m. in the West Virginia Class AAA state quarterfinals at the Charleston Civic Center.

"It feels good to turn things around, and it feels good to be the start of something," said Desmond Newman, Jefferson's sixth man.

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Jefferson's 19-5 season had the makings of a true Hollywood story. The largest school in West Virginia has a huge talent pool to draw from but rarely could pull it together to get out of its section. Since its last appearance at states in 1996, the Cougars have been a picture of self destruction.

This year, all that changed. Jefferson hired highly respected veteran coach Bob Starkey, who helped the Cougars see the light.

"I was told by other coaches and members of the news media that no matter what you do, don't take that job," Starkey said. "I did. I guess I'm hard-headed. I had an idea we could do this based on the way that we played at Shepherd (University) in the summer league. We went 10-0 and we were quicker than a lot of other teams."

Starkey installed the trademark system which carried him through his days as a high school coach in the Wheeling area and for 20 years at Shepherd. He used it in stints in Loudoun County, Va., and at South Hagerstown.

This will be Starkey's sixth trip to a state tournament in the last eight years. He led South Hagerstown to the Maryland state tournament in five of his last seven seasons there.

"It's been nothing but good since coming here," Starkey said. "(The players) have responded and listened intently at what I have been saying. I had some built-in insulation, though, because these kids' parents remember me from Shepherd and because South High was No. 1 last year. So my reputation outweighed their reputation."

Jefferson's players experienced the same early feelings about possible success when Starkey did.

"The first time we met him at the summer league, when we heard what he was talking about, we knew we were going to win," Newman said. "The difference has been we have respect for the coach and we are playing as a team."

The season became a rallying point for a team of individuals who have been playing ball together.

"We always had the talent, but we were never a team," said guard Josh Brown, Jefferson's leading scorer. "Once we hooked together as a team, our true talent came through. We've played together for our entire lives, but Coach Starkey has sparked the discipline in us. Once we got going, things came together."

The early success introduced a whole group of incentives to the Cougars.

"This feels great," guard Reggie Creamer said. "None of my cousins could do it. I've been talking with them about it. This year, the players came to play and are listening ... and we were tired of losing."

The most dramatic part of the turnaround came when Jefferson beat Martinsburg and state runner-up Hedgesville during a dramatic run through the Region II Section 2 tournament.

"I'm not surprised that we are here," Brown said. "I said from the beginning of the year that we would be in Charleston. We were determined not to lose again. Martinsburg had been beating us the last couple of years. We said we had to stop them and we did."

Woodrow Wilson has won 15 state titles, more than any other school in state history.

"We're expected to lose," Creamer said. "But we've been expected to lose all year. We have the desire to win. We want to do what Hedgesville couldn't and we want to show everyone that Jefferson County means something."

It would be the perfect ending to a fairy tale kind of year.

"We are taking a positive approach," Starkey said. "I don't think we could be playing a better opponent for us than Woodrow Wilson. They play like us and Martinsburg. That's the best we can do and I feel pretty confident. This team is different. It has an air of confidence. I think our eyes are set a little higher ... I don't think we are done just yet."

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