By GARY FAUBER
BECKLEY - The population of Webster County, West Virginia, is 8,372. On March 16, it seemed every one of them made the 90-mile trip to Charleston to watch their Highlanders make history.
Amid a boisterous sea of red and black, Webster County defeated Parkersburg Catholic, 47-40, for the Class A boys basketball state championship, capping off an undefeated season and the school's first state title of any kind.
"I was telling someone the other day, when I was standing on the floor before the game when they were singing the (national) anthem, I saw all the fans and it was just unreal, that feeling," Webster coach Michael Gray said.
The Highlanders had a senior-dominated team, but a head coach is always necessary to pull it all together. Webster had that in Gray, and he has been recognized for his work by the West Virginia Sports Writers Association with the Van Meter Award. The award named in honor of Woodrow Wilson coaching legend Jerome Van Meter is given annually to the top high school coach in West Virginia.
Gray beat out Parkersburg South wrestling coach Shaun Smith, Herbert Hoover softball coach Missy Smith and Martinsburg football coach Dave Walker.
"That is unbelievable when I think of all the coaches who have been coach of the year," Gray said. "This is my third year (as a head coach) at the high school level. It's been a great run so far."
It will be hard to top what they pulled off this year.
The state title win was Webster's 28th of the year, making the Highlanders the state's first boys basketball team to finish 28-0.
The last undefeated Class A team was Paden City, which went 27-0 in 1987.
The Highlanders defeated St. Marys in the state quarterfinals and survived a semifinal challenge from Trinity Christian before winning 45-42 to set up the history-clinching day against Parkersburg Catholic. Only then did they finally celebrate.
"There at the end, when we knew we were about to win the state title, they started showing the emotion we wanted to see all year," Gray said. "They are just a quiet bunch of kids."
Gray will be presented with his trophy Sunday, May 5, at the 73rd Victory Awards Dinner at Embassy Suites in Charleston.