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Irish hold top spots

Jan. 21, 2014 @ 10:34 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington St. Joe's basketball team is No. 1 and Huntington St. Joe's basketball team is No. 1.

The Irish boys and girls high school teams sit atop the West Virginia Associated Press Class A polls.

That the girls are No. 1 is no surprise. The Lady Irish returned five starters, including two major college recruits, from the 2013 state championship team. St. Joe has won five consecutive girls state titles. They're so dominant that even with three losses in 15 games, the Lady Irish received all 10 first-place votes this week and 100 points in the poll.

The St. Joe boys, meanwhile, are a surprise team occupying the No. 1 spot. Coming off a 3-21 record last season, reaching the .500 mark would have been considered by many people as wildly successful. Beginning the season 12-0 wasn't a consideration, especially with a schedule that includes some traditional Tri-State powers.

Yet, the Irish, led by freshman point guard Keith Clemons and forward Brian Conaty who missed two seasons because of injuries, are at the summit of West Virginia Class A basketball, receiving six first-place votes and 96 points to easily outdistance No. 2 Greater Beckley Christian.

"I felt we'd be better," St. Joe boys coach Ross Scaggs said. "Once we got in practice, I felt we could be successful. Our guys have played so well. I don't know any more than I did last year."

Just 13 schools in the state have a smaller enrollment than St. Joe's 141 students. For both the boys and the girls to be ranked No. 1 at the same time is extraordinarily rare. Players from both squads fervently support one another at a school where everyone knows everyone.

Scaggs pulls hard for the girls and Lady Irish coach Shannon Lewis roots enthusiastically for the boys.

"There is a lot of pride at St. Joe," Scaggs said. "Shannon has done a great job. The kids on both teams are friends and pull for each other, along with Huntington Prep. It's a great environment."

Huntington Prep is one of the top prep school teams in the nation. Its players attend school at St. Joe.

The Class of 2014 Lady Irish are 73-17, an .818 winning percentage, the last three-plus seasons. Included in those figures is a 66-game wining streak against in-state competition. St. Joe's girls haven't lost to an opponent from West Virginia since March 8, 2008, when Wheeling Central rallied late for a 41-37 victory in the state championship game.

St. Joe hasn't played a mediocre schedule to pad the streak. On Jan. 8, the Lady Irish defeated Spring Valley, the No. 4 team in Class AAA.

The Lady Irish's three losses this season have been against some of the better teams on the East Coast. They also have posted impressive victories against out of state squads, including Columbus Africentric, Olentangy and Jackson, three of the top teams in Ohio. St. Joe has beaten a strong Kentucky team in Ashland, and South Carolina power Hall Episcopal, which features the nation's premier girls player A'Ja Wilson.

"We held her to 58 points and 21 rebounds," Lewis said, with a chuckle. "There was no way to stop her. She can do everything -- shoot, handle the ball, rebound -- but we still won. I'm really proud of our team."

"No way to stop her" likely is how opponents feel about Lady Irish stars Mychal Johnson and Griffin Dempsey. Johnson has signed to play at Notre Dame. The 5-foot-8 senior guard averages 22.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 3.3 steals for a team that often pulls its starters well before the fourth quarter. Dempsey, a 5-6 senior guard who has signed to play at Charlotte, averages 15.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.7 steals per contest.

Senior forward Rachel Lee, senior center Asia Petitte and sophomore guard Mychelle Johnson (Mychael's sister) round out the starting five. Lee said she enjoys playing on such a powerhouse team but that winning doesn't come easily.

"We all pick each other up," said Lee, who averages 11.8 points and 5.3 rebounds. "Nobody worries about who gets attention. We play as a team."

Lee could as easily have been describing the St. Joe boys. The Irish are led by Clemons, a freshman who plays like a senior. Clemons is adept at driving to the basket, is a 90 percent free throw shooter and is unselfish in giving up the ball. Clemons hit all 17 of his free throws in St. Joe's come-from-behind defeat of Fairland. He scored the winning basket with six seconds left in a 55-54 victory at Chesapeake, which hadn't lost a home game in four years.

Clemons also made a game-winning 3-pointer from half court at the buzzer as the Irish avoided what appeared to be certain defeat in a 75-73 victory over South Point.

"It's not just me," Clemons said. "It's everyone playing together."

Nothing emphasized playing together more than the victories at Chesapeake and against Fairland. Clemons didn't play well for much of the Chesapeake game, but Conaty scored 17 and Payne Meadows scored 11. Against Fairland, when Clemons scored 23, but was just 3-for-13 from the floor, Conaty and Meadows scored 19 apiece and combined to go 14-for-26 from the field.

"There have been a lot of situations where Keith has been instrumental," Scaggs said. "There is no jealousy there. They all like Keith and he's not boastful. He likes to play, but he knows it takes a team to win. This group is pretty competitive and they're an unselfish bunch."

That unselfishness makes the Irish difficult to defend. They feature multiple weapons and they play well together. The result has been victory 12 times in 12 attempts.

"South Point is our only fluky win," Scaggs said. "We've won some games we could have lost. Once I found out how competitive we are, I knew we had a chance to be pretty good."

Scaggs isn't, however, dusting off a shelf in the trophy case. He said he knows how difficult winning a state title can be, even though the Lady Irish have made it appear easy.

"As a coach, I'm always worried about the next game," Scaggs said. "It's good for St. Joe and for the kids to get the notoriety that comes with being ranked No. 1, but we have to keep grounded. Being ranked No. 1 should give you confidence and motivation. Part of a coaches job is to get the kids to understand that."

Lewis and Scaggs said a key goal is to coach the players into having a good time during their high school athletic careers.

"I hope the kids enjoy their high school experience," Scaggs said. "It's such a short period of time. We want them to know that you can win and do it the right way."

St. Joe's boys put their undefeated record on the line at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Man. The girls play again at 6 p.m. Friday against Anderson County (Ky.) at the Louisville Mercy Invitational.

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