James Monroe isn’t without its share of postseason experience.
The boys basketball team won the Class A state championship last season and head coach John Mustain led the girls basketball team to the Class AA state championship in the early 2000s. Mustain also has experience as a football coach, having led the 2016 team to the Class AA semifinals.
Now he hopes to lead this team a step further in the Class A playoffs.
With this group having won a home playoff game last year and boasting several players from the basketball team that won a title eight months ago, Mustain hopes that experience translates.
It’s a familiar standing after all. The Mavericks enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed as the basketball team did, meaning they’re familiar being the hunted.
“We talked about that yesterday and of course I did a lot of eye to eye contact with those kids who had been on that basketball team,” Mustain laughed. “We talked about how good a feeling it is to get to the point where they’ve gotten and it’s a big thrill to finish that high and go undefeated but there’s a lot more work to do. I don’t know how much having won a championship before really helps.
“We also have several other coaches on staff that have played and been in the playoffs. Kelly Mann won a state championship at Peterstown in football back in the day. Pat Boone was in the playoffs for Peterstown and he’s an old man like me. He blocked for Steve Newberry back in the day. I think it helps in terms of us being able to explain to the boys what to expect. It helps too last year that we won a game for those that didn’t play basketball. All of that helps, but the biggest point I try to get across to them is it’s an entirely new season and anything can happen. Fairmont Senior last year in double-A finished 16 and won the whole thing so you can’t take anything for granted.”
The Mavericks, seeking their first trip to Wheeling since 2009, will open their postseason journey on Saturday when they host No. 16 Petersburg, a school that dropped from double-A to single-A when the Mavericks did in 2020.
When watching the Vikings, Mustain sees a versatile team.
“They’re a very well-balanced team,” Mustain said. “They’ve got some pretty good size and some pretty good skill players and they’re very similar to us in that they’ll throw it and are successful in the passing game and they’ve got a pretty good running game too. I see a lot of similarities between us and them.”
Balance has been the key to the Maverick offense this season.
After riding the QB carousel last season with four different players seeing reps at the position, Layton Dowdy has firmly grasped it and excelled. The sophomore has thrown for 1,164 yards and 17 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His top receiver, Eli Allen, who came out late, played in just seven games but has hauled in 22 passes for 444 yards and eight touchdowns. Running back Cooper Ridgeway ran for over 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns and adds value in the passing game with 21 catches for 287 yards and five touchdowns.
“We passed pretty well back in (2016),” Mustain said. “We may have a little bit better of receiving core but there’s a lot of similarities between this team and that team in my mind because it felt like we had a good number of skill players that we could go to like we have now. We’re not so much a one-dimensional team where we can key on one player. We have several running backs and they’ll probably try to key on Eli in the passing game but we have other receivers too. We have several different people we can go to in different situations.”
As prolific as the offense has been, the defense has been outstanding for the Mavericks. This year’s squad broke the record for fewest points allowed in a single season in program history with 48. That includes a shutout of No. 8 Greenbrier West and allowing just seven points to Class AA No. 12 Nicholas County.
“They have done a fantastic job this year on that side, not to downplay the offense,” Mustain said. “I said it before and I said it coming into this season, I felt pretty secure about our defense because we had so many kids coming back that had a year of this system under their belt. The thing of it is there’s probably not too much we haven’t seen. Maybe the single wing but I feel pretty confident.
“We’re always in a situation where we want to get better offensively and that’s not to say our defense can’t improve because it can but they’re very good. We’re fortunate to get in the playoffs but if we get deeper and deeper you’re going to start seeing more highly touted offenses that will challenge our defense to a different level so hopefully we can continue to play the level of defense.”
One luxury the Mavericks have is they’ll host throughout the playoffs which could mean a lot of traveling for opposing teams. In the bracket with them are Petersburg (3 hours and 18 minutes), Greenbrier West (1 hour and 17 minutes), South Harrison (3 hours and 6 minutes), Wahama (3 hours and 7 minutes) and Wheeling Central (4 hours and 33 minutes).
Mustain believes hosting is nice, but doesn’t know how much it makes a difference. During the 2016 semifinal run in double-A the Mavericks made the three-hour trek to Point Pleasant where they won a quarterfinal game before traveling to Mingo Central in the semifinal.
“When I look back, and I talked to the kids about this too, but when I look back at the history of our playoffs over the years Weir came down here one year and thumped us,” Mustain said. “When the homefield advantage and a few years later we went up there and beat them. I don’t know other than the fact you get to sleep in your own bed – I don’t know that there’s any huge advantage. We had a year where we went to Chapmanville, Weir and Magnolia and lost to Magnolia in the semifinals.
“From a coaching standpoint it might be easier going on the road because you don’t have to get the field ready or worry about the regulations of being a host school, but it’s nice playing at home. It’s nice for our fans because they don’t have to get involved in all that traveling though they do travel well and always have. As far as an advantage, there may be a slight one but being at home and No. 1 guarantee anything.”
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