After 29 years, Dragons are conference champions –
By Mark Carpenter –
Photos by Zach Daniel –
It was a long time coming. Though it had been 29 years in the making, just the last two weeks had been a torturous wait. First year head coach Greg Himes and his West Union Dragons were right on the cusp of winning the school’s first outright boys basketball conference title since 1989, but had to wait since Feb. 3 for the opportunity to clinch that crown. After a Feb. 3 overtime loss at home to Lynchburg, the Dragons had not played another game in the Southern Hills Athletic Conference until this past Friday night, Feb. 16. Ironically, Lynchburg was the opponent again, but this time on the home court of the Mustangs, no easy task for a West Union team with so much at stake.
For some historical perspective, the 1988-89 Dragons, coached by Larry Fossitt, were coming off of their second consecutive undefeated season in what was then known as the Southern Hills League. Names such as Roush, Hazelbaker, Shoemaker, McClellan, and Zimmerman dotted the roster of a West Union team that won a sectional championship before suffering a three-point loss to Wellston in the district tournament. Now, 29 years later, names such as McCarty, Rothwell, Vogler, Fuller, Tomlin, and Kingsolver were looking to add a long-elusive conference title to the Dragon record book.
A trip to Lynchburg with an outright big school division SHAC title waiting was not an easy job to face for this West Union team, but they proved to be up to the task, as they set off a jubilant celebration and parade through the streets of the county seat, knocking off the Mustangs by a final score of 79-69.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Coach Himes after the historic win. “This is just my first year here, so what will we do for an encore? I am so proud of our guys and so happy for our five seniors. These kids really bought into what I wanted to do and after we get picked to finish last, here we are as the SHAC champions. The crowds have grown all year and it has just been a great season.”
“Coach (Matt) Carson does such a great job here with this Lynchburg program and you have to give credit to their kids, they never quit and battled to the end and we were fortunate to close it out.”
The theme of excitement for Friday night came early as West Union’s Bowan Tomlin opened the scoring with a three-point goal, and the Mustangs answered with a resounding alley-oop dunk by senior Eric McLaughlin. The Dragons answered with a Ryan Rothwell three and after a basket by Elijah McCarty and a Tomlin putback, the visitors had opened up a 12-4 advantage. After Lynchburg closed that gap to 14-9, a McCarty trey and a Zane Kingsolver free throw pushed the lead out to nine. The Mustangs had another answer, however, closing out the first quarter with three pointers by McLaughlin and Devin Pierson to cut their deficit to 20-17.
At the 4:50 mark of the second period, after a Vogler trey, McLaughlin picked up his third foul, but the Mustangs hung tough, drawing within one at 27-26 on a three ball by Austin Hilt with two minutes left in the half. Two free throws by Eli Fuller, whose father and uncle were both part of that 1989 WUHS team, and a late three ball by Garrett Vogler sent the Dragons to halftime holding a 34-29 lead.
The second half began with a long distance artillery drill, with McLaughlin hitting the three on Lynchburg’s first possession, only to see Tomlin and McCarty connect from downtown to give West Union a 42-32 margin and bring the large contingent of Dragon fans who made the trip to their feet. The teams traded baskets for most of the third quarter, with a late Tomlin trey boosting the lead to 52-38. McLaughlin hit a pair from the charity stripe with 45 seconds to go, but more importantly, picked up his fourth foul with nine seconds to go, and the Dragons went to the final eight minutes in front 51-40.
A wild and exciting final eight minutes awaited as the two teams combined for 57 points, and with West Union up 59-49 with 5:04 to play, McLaughlin picked up his fifth foul, which might make one thing that the Mustangs were finished, but banish that thought. With their leading scorer out of the game, the home team went on a run , led by the deadeye shooting of Noble Walker, who fired in a quartet of fourth quarter threes, and with another long bomb from Chris Young, Lynchburg sliced the gap down to 68-64 with under two minutes to go. To sew up this contest, the Dragons would have to do something they had struggled with all season, hit the free throws, and down the stretch they outscored Lynchburg 11-5, with five of those points coming from the stripe. Rothwell went four for four in that span and when Vogler hit one of two from the line with 14 seconds remaining, the fat lady was singing as melodic as the West Union High School Choir, announcing a 79-69 win and that first SHAC title in 29 seasons.
As they have had all season, a balanced scoring attack paced the Dragons, with all five starters hitting double figures, led by Bowan Tomlin’s 19 points. West Union got 15 points each from Elijah McCarty, Garrett Vogler, and Ryan Rothwell, with Zane Kingsolver chipping in 13.
Lynchburg placed a trio of players in double figures, led by Eric McLaughlin’s 18, with Noble Walker adding 16 and Austin Hilt 12.
The two teams combined to scorch the nets for a combined 18 three-point goals in the game.
The Dragons now turn their attention to the Division III sectional tournament, where they will be in action on Friday night at 8:30 p.m. at Waverly High School, facing the winner of Western Latham and Southeastern (that result was not yet available at press time). A win on Friday sends the Dragons into the district tourney at the Ohio University Convocation Center on March 3, a place that hasn’t seen the #DragonDynasty in many years.
“Fortunately we get to play for a sectional championship right off the bat, and we have earned that right,” said Himes. “We just need to go out and take what we have worked so hard before. It’s been a great season so far and I don’t want to see it end any time soon.”
20 14 17 28 –79
17 12 11 29 –69
W. Union (79): Fuller 2, Tomlin 19, Kingsolver 13, Rothwell 15, Vogler 15, McCarty 15
Lynchburg (69): McLaughlin 18, Pierson 8, Young 7, Walker 16, Conner 2, Smith 4, Croy 2, Hilt 12
W. Union (8): Tomlin 3, Rothwell 1, McCarty 2, Vogler 2
Lynchburg (10): Pierson 1, McLaughlin 2, Hilt 2, Walker 4, Young 1