By Chad Richards, Contributing Writer
With an enrollment of around 2,000 and a location in the northern panhandle, it’s no surprise that not many people have heard of West Liberty that aren’t from the area. But to NCAA Division 2 basketball programs, it’s a name all too familiar as it has consistently produced some of the best men’s and women’s basketball teams in the country. As November rolls around, that means it’s time to start what should be another historic season for these top-tier D2 programs.
The last season was one of the program’s best, both on the men’s side with a Final Four appearance and the women’s side with a dance in the Sweet Sixteen, and both have hopes to make it even further this year.
The men’s season started in strong fashion, with triple digit scores in wins over Mansfield and California University of Pennsylvania. They had some early scares from Notre Dame College in overtime and from Fairmont State at the ASRC, which led to a tough two point win. They would go on to win 15 in a row before losing two in a row to Concord and rival Wheeling Jesuit. But they rebounded quickly and finished the regular season undefeated from there, as well as undefeated on their home court after a nationally televised finale with Wheeling Jesuit.
Then it was on to the Mountain East Conference Tournament, where they managed a close win against Glenville State, but got stopped short of the finals by a double overtime buzzer beater courtesy of Concord. That didn’t stop them from rolling through the Atlantic Regionals and beating Concord, Virginia State and Kutztown to make a return trip to the Elite Eight. A tough single point win against Stonehill put them to the Final Four, where they lost in a high scoring shootout to Lincoln Memorial, 103-102 to finish 31-4 on the season.
The women had a similar season of success, posting a record of 29-5 and an appearance in the Atlantic Regional Finals. It began with two quick wins at home, including a convincing rout of the then defending national champions California University of Pennsylvania. After an early 69-73 loss to Ohio Dominican, the Lady Hilltoppers went on to win 14 in a row before the streak was snapped at home by Notre Dame College. After one more loss to West Virginia State on the road, the Lady Toppers would win out the rest of the regular season, including an overtime scare from Glenville State. Then it was off to the Mountain East Conference Tournament, where they would end up falling in the finals to none other than Wheeling Jesuit. Then, it was on to the postseason’s Atlantic Regional tournament, where a similar story repeated itself; the Lady Toppers cruised through the first two rounds before taking a loss to host Virginia Union in the finals, ending a historic season for the team.
But now it’s time to look to the upcoming season, as it’s only a few days away. Both teams are returning players that are sure to play major keys in the upcoming season.
The women’s team also returns some quality talent, both young and old. The women had their freshman standout in the form of the now sophomore guard Johnnie Olkosky. She played in and started all 34 games, posting 296 points (around nine per game) and 64 three- pointers. She also had 20 games scoring in double figures. Senior Guard Emily Bucon is also returning after a great junior season after battling through some injuries. She scored 255 points and had 155 assists. She had 10 games scoring in double figures and a season high of 22 points. She also posted a career high of seven two-pointers and six three-pointers against Slippery Rock.
Both coaches are known for their ability to bring high quality recruits to the Hillltop, and this season is no different, with both teams bringing on some new faces and some transfer students. One player to look forward to is Clay Guillozet from Greenville High School in Ohio. He started all four years on his high school team. In that time, he posted 1,583 career points and a stunning 23.6 points per game in his senior year. He was the Ohio Division I District 9 Player of the Year in his final two seasons.
The women’s team has its share of new talent as well. One of the incoming classmembers includes Monica Bragg from Weirton Madonna High School. She averaged 22 points her senior year and around 26 in the postseason. The women will also be welcoming a transfer student; McKenna Shives transferred to the Hilltop from Gannon, a D2 school.
The men come into the season top of the nation and top of the conference, while the women sit at a comfortable third place in the conference preseason poll. Their seasons kick off on tonight with the women on the road to play Mercyhurst and the men hosting Cheney University of Pennsylvania.
You can catch live coverage of all home basketball games and some away games on WLU-TV 14 and recaps for those games and the rest of the season in The Trumpet.