Hilltoppermen still a force in Division II

WEST LIBERTY – West Liberty’s men’s basketball team took its fans and the entire Ohio Valley on another exciting post-season ride last season.

While three key pieces – Alex Falk, Chris Morrow and Tim Hausfield – have graduated, the Hilltoppers are ready to crank it up again and head coach Jim Crutchfield doesn’t expect much to change.

“We’re really excited for the season,” said West Liberty head coach Jim Crutchfield, who is embarking on his 10th year at the helm. “We’ve been very business like and we’ve worked hard every day, but we’re not anywhere near where we want to be yet.”

The Hilltoppers finished last season with a 34-2 record. They advanced to the Division II Final Four in Louisville where they fell, 83-76, to Metropolitan State.

They came into this season, which tipped off Saturday evening, ranked as the No. 2 team in America according to several pre-season publications.

Though highly disappointed about how last season finished, don’t look for any kinds of motivational ploys involving “unfinished business” or anything of the sort.

“We don’t look at it that way,” Crutchfield said. “We had a great year. We lost a close game in which we didn’t shoot the ball real well and now we’re anxious for the new season. That game doesn’t affect us for this year. It’s a whole new season and it’s like we’re starting from scratch.”

Losing the aforementioned trio, which all scored more than 1,000 points, obviously leaves a void. It’s actually been a bit of a weird pre-season for Crutchfield who’d grown so accustomed to seeing his 2013 leaders on a daily basis.

“They were here a long time,” Crutchfield said. “It’s definitely different without them. Practice has been different, too. One of the missions we have is maintaining our intensity level in practice without Alex because he was such a great practice player. I think they were a part of as many wins as anyone in college basketball.”

Over the course of the last four years, the Hilltoppers have rang up 128 victories, four conference championships and three trips to the NCAA Elite 8.

That pedigree is what Crutchfield believes led to his squad earning such high praise in the pre-season polls.

“It’s flattering,” Crutchfield said. “But, it doesn’t mean anything. I hope our guys don’t think we’ve done something because we’ve done nothing. It’s just a nice compliment for what’s happened for us over the last three to five years, so I don’t put a lot of stock into pre-season accolades because no player has done anything and no team has won a game.”

While some of the faces will be new, the Hilltoppers’ goals remain the same. And those have little to do with conference titles or national titles.

“We have the same two goals every year,” Crutchfield offered. “We want to put a different style of basketball on the floor. We want to be more up tempo and play to a higher level of intensity and awareness to the point where it’s noticeable. The second goal is we want to get toward the end of the season and feel like we have a chance to win the conference tournament championship.”

One thing’s for sure about the Hilltoppers. They won’t win another West Virginia Conference title. The league is now defunct and the Hilltoppers and majority of the other members of the WVIAC are now competing in the Mountain East.

“It really didn’t feel much different until (last) Monday when we had our conference media day,” Crutchfield said. “There were a few new coaches, new banners and just a different feel. We’ve just been dialed into what we need to do. It’s kind of like I’ve had our guys prisoner up on the hill.”

Three of the ‘Toppers top four scorers return. Cedric Harris returns after netting 16.8 points a game. C.J. Hester and Shawn Dyer accounted for 12.1 and 11.1 points a night, respectively.

Seger Bonifant, Bubby Goodwin, Keene Cockburn all played key roles and will take on larger duties this season.

Devin Hearn is a red-shirt sophomore and Zak Kirkbride is also working his way into the mix. Brandon Smith is a true frosh who can make an impact.

“We’re not the youngest or oldest team you’re going to find,” Crutchfield said. “We’ve still got a good mix of guys. We have guys who know what it takes to win.”

On Dec. 17, the Hilltoppers will Cedarville at the ASRC in a 7:30 p.m. tip. Prior to that game, Wheeling Park will take on Preston in its season debut.

“Coach (Michael) Jebbia and I are close and he was at the forefront of putting that together,” Crutchfield said. “I think it will be fun. Sometimes it’s tough to match up dates, but we’d like to make it an annual event if possible.”