Thirty years is a long time, yet it just seems like yesterday that Paden City High School Basketball Coach Bob Burton took a talented group of high school players and molded them into a team that would forever leave a legacy with the school and the community.
Many of you were not even born yet, but the year was 1987 and the Paden City Wildcats basketball team was on a mission. Like most teams, they began the season with some simple goals. Win the OVAC, make the playoffs and win as many games as possible. That they did!
This team had talent from top to bottom. It was evident from day one they were going to be something special, and as most of Coach Burton’s teams, each game would be preparation for tournament time. Burton was known by everyone who ever played for him that conditioning was a major part of Wildcats’ sports.
Playing for coach Burton, you could count on sore legs and blistered feet. Running was not an option, it was mandatory and included the stairs in the back of the gym plus daily line drills. You didn’t just run, you put out effort. Burton wasn’t an absentee coach, he was there watching. He was on top of things. Burton also taught all aspects of the game, practices included shooting drills, defense, traps, pressing, offensive plays, foul shooting and teamwork with the latter being the most important.
I won’t ever forget his rebounding drill – a basketball tied to the end of a rope and thrown up over the bank board supports. When it was your turn, you would jump until you grabbed the ball. The problem was you never got the ball until he let you. It was his tug on the rope that would just pull it out of your reach until you couldn’t go any longer. Legs became stronger and rebounding became easier.
The 1987 group was so special that Burton often said, “I didn’t have to do much coaching I had four or five coaches on the floor at all times.” These guys had talent when they were just 12-13 years old. They played together they didn’t go on traveling teams or join AAA ball, they formed a partnership, stuck together at Paden City high school, played their roles and helped each other. They listened to coach Burton and did as he directed.
By mid-season there was lots of excitement in Wildcats’ land. Though that storied team had gone 10-0, it had not been a cake walk. Nearly every team was out to beat them at any cost, but the winning continued. Big Mike Harlan, a 6’7″ 210 pound center, was dominating in the lane and around the basket. Troy Copper, the area’s finest ball-handler and a deadly shooter, teamed up with two other quality guards – Mitch Koerber and Mike Morris – to form a dangerous back court for any opponent to face. Koerbor and Morris were skilled defensive players that you didn’t let your guard down on. They could quickly force a turnover and turn it into points.
Cooper, who along with Burton invented the “Coop a Dupe”, was a play where he would use his ball handling skills to penetrate and either get fouled or dish off to Harlen and a trio of other big men. Paden City, although a small school, had plenty of size. Along with Harlan, they had 6′ 7″ Lance Heasley, 6′ 5″ Jeff Anderson, 6′ 3″ Barry Suter and 6’2″ Aaron Jones. The Wildcats were not only talented, big in size, well disciplined, intelligent, but also deep in depth. Burton could call on any one of eight or nine players.
“As we neared the end of the season and had not lost, I knew we had something special. It motivated myself and my assistants Coach Jeff Bowers and Coach Jamie Natali to pull out all punches to get to Charleston. I knew we had a chance, but I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We watched films and spent hours on strategy. Much time was spent in the gym making sure we were all on the same page. From the starters to the role players, everyone was needed and had a role to play,” Burton said. “Bowers and Natali were invaluable to our success. I remember the whole town was excited and behind us. We didn’t want to let them down.”
By the time the Wildcats got through the sectionals and regionals, they were 24-0 with three games to play. After wining the quarter-final and semi-final, they were ready for Saturdays championship game against another 26-0 team, the Bramwell Millionaires. Something had to give and the Wildcats were determined that it wouldn’t be them.
The Millionaires started out strong, but the Wildcats hung tough. After playing back and forth for three and a half quarters, Paden City got the lead, took a time out and went to it’s patented “Coop a Dupe” offense. The Millionaires were unable to regain the lead and with the Wildcats up by six with time running down, Bramwell was forced to foul. Cooper, who teamed with Harlan to can 26-32 free throws in the game, was automatic near the end and ended with 29 points on five field goals and 19 free throws. The final score was Paden City 71 Bramwell 61. Making the state All-Tournament team were three players from Paden City, Cooper, Harlan and Koerber.
Wildcats’ fans will have an opportunity to recall this past event when the WVSSAC recognizes the 1987 team and coaches on the 30th anniversary of their 27-0 state championship run. The recognition will happen on Saturday, March 18, at halftime of the 2017 Class A championship game.