With the state guidelines still in place recently in West Virginia in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, Hannah Tothe had to find a gym for her West Virginia Dream girls’ AAU basketball team to practice in.
Thankfully, Kelci Blair and her mother came to the rescue.
Blair, a Dream team member and a senior at Johnson Central High School in Paintsville, Kentucky, told Tothe to come on over to the Bluegrass State.
The Blairs arranged for the Dream to practice at the old Oil Springs gym in rural Johnson County.
“We are practicing two times a week but we are having to practice in Kentucky to get those in,” said Tothe, a Logan, former Lady Cat hoopster and a 2013 LHS graduate. “The gyms here won’t allow us to practice in them. A lot of the girls had been running outside but now we are finally able to get in a gym in Oil Springs, Kentucky.”
Oil Springs, population 851, consolidated its high school with three other small Johnson County schools, Van Lear, Flat Gap and Meade Memorial, to form Johnson Central High School in 1968.
The gym was available and for the taking.
“The school is about 10 minutes from Johnson Central High School,” Tothe said. “Practices are going really well. We are just happy to have a gym, somewhere to practice and have a place to get our girls back in condition for games. We are also working on some sets so when we do go play some games we will be prepared.”
With the AAU basketball season coming up, Tothe said she was happy to find a gym of any kind.
“It was a struggle finding a gym to get into,” Tothe said. “Thankfully, Kelci’s mom knew some people that had that gym. It was a very hard task for us just finding one.”
Johnson County, and its two high schools Johnson Central and Paintsville, has been a basketball hotbed for many years.
Paintsville High School’s 1996 boys’ basketball team, led by future Marshall University standout and Kentucky Mr. Basketball J.R. VanHoose, won the single-class state championship with a victory over Ashland.
Johnson Central has been a regional powerhouse in both boys and girls basketball, winning four consecutive 15th Region boys’ titles from 2012-15. The school has also won two football state titles and has Grammy Award winning singer and songwriter Chris Stapleton and former Major League pitcher Willie Blair as notable alumni.
Nearby Flat Gap was once home to the Flat Gap High School Greyhounds, whose 1956-57 team once boasted Charlie Osborne and Carroll Burchett. Osborne later plated in the NBA and Burchett went on to play at the University of Kentucky.
Paintsville is also home to John Pelphrey, the 1987 Mr. Basketball Award winner and former standout player at UK. Pelphrey, the current head coach at Tennessee Tech, is the former head coach at Arkansas and South Alabama and was a Marshall assistant coach in the mid-1990s.
Girls’ basketball in Johnson County has been strong over the years as well, particularly at Johnson Central.
Blair has been a big part of keeping the Golden Eagles at the top of their game.
She did not play for the Dream last season as she sat out with a knee injury and Tothe said she’s happy to have her back.
In her sophomore year at Johnson Central, she helped the Lady Eagles reach Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen state tournament in 2018. The following year, Johnson Central’s bid to make it to back-to-back state tournaments was foiled after a loss to Pikeville in the 15th Region championship game.
“Kelci Blair is from Johnson Central and is our point guard. She was out last year with an ACL tear but she’s back and ready to go this year. We are so excited to have her back this year,” Tothe said.
Tothe has been hard at work getting her team ready for the summer season.
So far, just one tournament has been scheduled but Tothe said she hopes to get others added.
“We’re looking at scheduling some tournaments right now but nothing is set in stone,” Tothe said. “Right now, I think that we are going to play. We are booked up the first week in July for a tournament in Nashville.”
One of the eight players on the Dream’s roster is Tothe’s younger sister, Jill, a rising senior at Logan.
In the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, the Tothes had to find a place for Jill to practice since the gyms have been closed.
“So even to get Jill a workout in we had to put a rim here at the store on the concrete patio,” Hannah Tothe said. “So we’ve been working out outside. It’s not been pleasant as Jill does not enjoy the heat. It’s just like old times playing outside. All we need now is the chain nets and we would be set.”
Tothe’s dad, Dream team founder Mike Tothe, a LHS girls’ basketball team assistant coach Kevin Gertz, coached the Dream for many years before handing it over to Hannah.
“We’ve been doing Jill’s team since she was in fourth grade and this is her final year,” Tothe said.
“There’s another girl on our team, Kaylea Jo Baisden, and she’s been with us too from the beginning since the fourth grade. They’ve been playing together since then. So it’s kind of bitter sweet since this is their last year and it’s awful since we have all of this stuff going on and we are not playing all summer like we want to be.”
Tothe said the Dream should be strong this season.
In addition to Jill Tothe, Blair and Baisden, a Tug Valley High School hoopster, five other top players dot the Dream’s roster.
Those players include: Julie Boone (Tolsia); Alana Eves (Wayne); Caroline Asbury (Spring Valley); Hannah Blankenship (Wyoming East); and Abbie Myers (Logan).
Myers, a guard, transferred from Chapmanville Regional to Logan last year at mid-season and ended up sitting out the second part of the basketball campaign in her transition to LHS.
“It’s definitely going to be our best year,” Tothe said. “We have seven strong girls on the team and we are solid in all five positions. We picked up Abbie Myers this year, a good guard who transferred from Chapmanville to Logan last year. She’s going to be a solid player. We are down one of our good basketball IQ players in Hannah Blankenship of Wyoming East. She’s having some medical issues that the doctors don’t really know how to handle right now. We truly do miss having her on the team. We are hoping the doctors might be able to give her some answers so she can be back out there with us.”
In the meantime, as the nation continues to open up and things go more back to normal, Tothe said she hopes to find additional AAU tournaments for the duration of the summer.
“We are looking at going to a couple of tournaments in Ohio,” Tothe said.
“We are also looking at one in Atlanta at the end of July. The Nashville tournament is so far the only one that we have for sure booked. We are waiting on the regulations and receiving those. We were going to play in a tournament this coming weekend (June 12-13) but they had regulations that once you came off the court and the players sat on the bench the players had to wear a mask, which makes no sense, because you can go out there on the court and swap sweat with someone and then sit on the bench and have to wear a mask. So we did not agree with that.”
The Dream has had much success over the years.
The team won its divisional national championship last season, a year after finishing runner-up.
Last season, the Dream, downed the Ashboro Warriors of South Carolina, 56-38, to close out national tournament play at 7-0 and the season with a 29-8 record.
“We’re going to have a good year if we can have a shot at getting out there to play,” Tothe said. “We have three or four getting college looks on our Dream team so it’s great to be able to help develop girls to play at the next level.”
Paul Adkins is the Sports Editor of the Logan Banner. Follow him on Twitter at @PAdkinsBanner or email him at email@example.com.