A special team on and off the court


Lady Bucs’ historic journey continues at this week’s state tournament

TENNERTON — In the aftermath of the Buckhannon-Upshur girls basketball team’s win over Morgantown in the recent sectional title game, a group of youngsters waited patiently to get a photo opportunity with members of the Lady Bucs, including standout Hanna McClung.

Amongst the wild atmosphere, McClung flashed her trade-mark smile and graciously accommodated every request from the group — some hoping to don a Lady Buc jersey themselves some day.

In the distance, I chatted with coach Jeremy Maxwell, who had the look of a proud father as he witnessed his players celebrate the hard-fought victory.

“These kids ... I just can’t say enough about them,” said Maxwell, trying to keep his emotions in check. “What they have accomplished both on the court and off the court is truly remarkable. I’ve been with the seniors for four years [at B-UHS] and also coached them at B-UMS.

“They are like rock stars to those kids. They are inspirations to them and the [kids] want to be like them when they get older.

“It’s just truly been a special group to be around.”

A family — on and off the court

With three sets of sisters on the team — Lauren and Leigh Ann Bennett, McKinley and Audrey Gaudet and Ashton and Brooklyn Maxwell —there’s certainly a feel of family on this team.

But it extends beyond the blood relationships, according to coach Maxwell.

“These girls truly love another and pull for one another,” he said. “When someone is down, they come together as a family would.”

Whether it’s sharing special moments on the court, which has reached record levels with this group, or the tough times as coach Maxwell’s wife, Miranda,  tragically passed away during the offseason, a bond is there for these Lady Bucs.

There’s certainly been some trying moments for this team,” said Maxwell, who is assisted by Brian Webb and Rob Kittle. “On the basketball court, if somebody makes a mistake there’s always somebody there to get them back up and provide encouragement. Off the court, it’s the same situation.”

Rebuilding the program

When Maxwell took over as coach in 2014-15, he inherited a program that had not posted a winning record since 1999, and had finished with winless seasons in 2009 and 2010. I remember covering girls basketball games at B-UHS during that span with approximately 20 fans in attendance, not including the parents.

During this past season, and for a majority of the past four years, the B-UHS gymnasium has been filled, including to capacity levels during the postseason.

In my first year at The Record Delta in 2014, I met with Delta editor Brian Bergstrom about the winter sports preview section. In past years, the boys basketball team was featured on the front. I told Brian I believe, after my preseason chats with coach Maxwell, that this Lady Bucs’ team is going to Charleston for the state tournament.

My belief was based on my respect for coach Maxwell, whom I covered during his all-state playing days [in both basketball and football] at Tucker County. It was not a sign of disrespect for the B-UHS boys basketball team, but more so on the potential for the Lady Bucs in the 2014-15 season.

“The times were certainly tough when I took over the program,” said Maxwell as he gazed at the strong flock of fans still in attendance after the Morgantown victory. “When I was coaching at the middle school, I would come to games up here and the crowds were a little smaller.

“It’s great to see how much community support we now have, because these girls certainly have worked hard to get this program to new heights.”

The Lady Bucs, with the four current seniors on the roster, went 14-8 in Maxwell’s first year and earned the team’s first state tournament berth since 2000.

The team was led by all-conference performers Megan Wilfong and McClung, who missed the postseason due to a knee injury.

“It was tough watching from the sidelines back then,” McClung said. “I think that [injury] really motivated me to come back stronger and make sure I was on the court the next time [at states].”

Another state trip followed the next season and again a first-round loss to Morgantown, which was in the midst of winning three straight titles, eliminated the Lady Bucs.

Last season, with expectations at an all-time high, the squad finally got that elusive state-tourney victory, winning a game in Charleston for the first time since Jamie Jones, a former West Virginia Wesleyan standout, took over the head coaching reigns in mid-season and guided the 2000 squad to an upset of Ripley in the quarterfinals.

A victory in the semifinals over Wheeling Park put the Lady Bucs into the title game for the first time in school history. Unfortunately, despite a career-night from Makayla Reynolds, who is now playing at Bethany, B-U dropped a hard-fought and controversial decision to Huntington.

Before the team even departed Charleston after the loss, however, the message and goals for next season were clear.

“We have a strong group coming back and expect us to be here again,” coach Maxwell said during the post-game press conference. “We just want to take home a different plaque than the one we got this year.”

On a mission

No longer bright-eyed freshmen taking to the court for the first time, the Lady Bucs’ four seniors — McClung, Lauren Bennett, McKinley Gaudet and Ashton Maxwell — have been the catalyst for the most successful season in school history.

The Lady Bucs, with a 24-1 record and winners of  20 straight games, have been ranked first in both polls for nearly the entire season. Their lone loss came back in December to double-A, No. 1 North Marion.

The senior group has been part of 80 wins during their careers, captured four straight regional and sectional titles and will be playing in Charleston for the fourth straight season — all school records.

McClung, the favorite to be named the state’s Player of the Year at season’s end, is the school’s all-time leading scorer (both boys and girls).

But the only thing on the mind of the Lenoir-Rhyne signee is winning a state title.

“That’s been our goal since last season,” she said. “We came back this year hungry to get that ring.”

McClung, despite leading the team in scoring with 20 ppg., is quick to credit to her teammates for her success.

“If I’m having a bad game or LB [Lauren Bennett] is, somebody else steps up. That’s what good teams have to do,” McClung said.

Bennett, one of the state’s top defensive players, is second on the team in scoring with 14 points per game, while the additional help comes from the likes of fellow starters McKinley Gaudet and juniors Alli Robinson and Audrey Gaudet.

Coming to a historic

ending

The journey of the 2017-18 version of the Lady Bucs will conclude this week on the floor of the Charleston Civic Center. They open tourney play tonight against Spring Mills.

It’s the hope of this writer and the B-U faithful that come Saturday night, this group is celebrating the school’s first-ever girls basketball state title.

They have put in the work to rebuild the Lady Bucs’ program with special players, special coaches and a special team.

I’ve covered some great basketball teams during my 20-plus years in the profession and this one is among the best.

Win or lose in Charleston, it’s been a fun ride covering the Lady Bucs this season and the past four years.


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