By Dave Morrison
West Virginia Sports Writer’s Association
James Monroe’s Eli Allen ascended the ladder like a king taking the throne, cutting down the final piece of the net following the Mavericks 66-35 victory against Tucker County in the Class A state championship.
He had a crown on his head, brought to Charleston by a friend and he hoisted the net into the air like a scepter, a net that will go into the Mavericks trophy case and live on in posterity like the championship and net the Mavericks claimed of the year before.
A week later Allen is another king of sorts, named Saturday the winner of the Evans Award as the state’s top basketball player by the West Virginia Sports Writer’s Association.
The keys to Allen’s rise to the throne are many, including the late nights in the gym honing his craft and a well-timed growth spurt between his freshman and sophomore year that saw him go from 5-foot-8 to 6-2. There were travel league games, too many to count to sharpen the game, and two years of football, in which he was first-team all-state twice and was among the leaders in interceptions with 15 combined the last two seasons, to mold the toughness.
Maybe the real key was right there in his own backyard. The toughest opponents Allen faced were right there in the gene pool.
The list for the typical backyard brawls Allen’s cousin Brody Davis, a first-team all-state player from Class AAAA state champion Morgantown, another cousin, first-team all-state running back Ian Cline from Greenbrier East and stepbrother and teammate Josh Burks, a first-team all-state player himself.
It was a family reunion free-for-all when that foursome got together.
“Those boys would compete,” said Allen’s father Rodney, himself an outstanding athlete at Peterstown (which consolidated with Union to form James Monroe in 1994), a two-sport athlete at WVU (football and baseball) and a former Atlanta Braves farmhand. “They would never fight, but they would battle, and I think it probably did have something to do with the fact that they all became successful later on.”
Allen finished his senior season averaging 21.4 points per game 7.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, leading his team in all three categories. He and teammates Burks and Fox, also four-year staters became just the second trio of teammates named to the Class A first-team (Athens, 1959) and just the fifth overall in all classes (Woodrow in 1993, South Charleston in 1984 and Huntington had four in 2007).
“It’s humbling to win the award as player of the year in the state,” Allen said. “Coming up with my family we were always competitive. I think I knew at an early age I could be good at basketball. Player of the year? Probably not that. But I have to thank my teammates for pushing me every day to be a better player. And they did. Every one of them. And I also want to thank my coaches, my family and the community for being there for us.”
Allen, now close to 6-4. came into James Monroe a rather average looking player, at 5-8, 140 pounds. There was nothing average about his competitiveness or his knowledge of the game.
“You could tell right away that Eli had something about him,” coach Matt Sauvage said. “He was special. He missed his first nine games with an injury during a flex day and missed the first (nine) games. But when he came back you could see that he already had the IQ to be a great player.”
Allen scored 13 in his first varsity game and averaged 12.5 points per game in 2020, but the Mavericks took several beatings to the likes of Bluefield and Shady Spring in their final season in Class AA.
There is one popular story about James Monroe playing Bluefield in the Big Atlantic Classic and the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center and Allen getting knocked down in the paint area. Bluefield’s Sean Martin, an imposing figure at 6-5, 250 pounds at the time, and now a defensive lineman at WVU, reached down with one arm and picked Allen up off the ground and stood him up.
The next year Allen shot up the growth chart and grew as a player as well. He averaged 17.3 as a sophomore, 20.3 as a junior and 21.4 this season.
Allen finished with 1,653 points (second in school history behind former teammate Shad Sauvage, 1,717), 672 rebounds (second behind 6-10 McKinley Mann’s 826) and 753 assists (first and, with the top 33 places on individual game assists to his credit at James Monroe nobody is close).
“He is a once-in-a-generation player,” Matt Sauvage said. “I thought he was the best player in the state, but I also knew I was biased getting to coach him, which was an honor and a privilege. He was a great player and a great teammate. But as good a player as he was, he was a better person. We were at the state tournament, and we’d be ready to come out and kids would come up to him and he’d take time for every one of them. He is always picking up the trash around the bench after games. That’s the type of person he is.”
Allen hopes that will be his legacy in a county where sports are the true king.
“I do think about all the little kids that come up, I try to give them support, give them high fives, take pictures with them,” Allen said. “That means something to them. It may seem like something little to me, but I enjoy that part of it. I love it. I never want to take that for granted.”
Allen said he will sit down over the next few weeks and mull over the many college offers he has received before deciding about his future.
Allen is just the fourth Class A player to win the Evans Award, joining Notre Dame’s Jarrod West (2017), Mullens’ Herbie Brooks (1984) and Mount Hope’s Earl Jones (1979).
The Evans Award has been awarded annually since 1970.
Morgantown junior Sharron Young was second in voting for player of the year and Shady Spring senior Braden Chapman was third. Others considered were George Washington’s Ben Nicol, Fairmont Senior’s Zycheus Dobbs and South Harrison’s Corey Boulden.
Allen will be presented with the Evans Award at the 76th annual Victory Awards Dinner May 7 at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.