Boys basketball: SA’s McNeil looks to return team to respectability
ST. ALBANS, W.Va. - St. Albans High School senior Nathan McNeil needs only look to 2010 for the last time the Los Angeles Lakers won an NBA championship.
His favorite professional basketball team had won its second consecutive title that year, something he commemorates at St. Albans practices by wearing his 2010 championship shirt and purple, gold and white shoes.
When Mullens native Mike D'Antoni - whose family lives in St. Albans - was hired to coach the Lakers this season, it was like the stars aligned for McNeil.
"It's pretty awesome," McNeil said. "I actually dated Mike D'Antoni's niece in middle school, which is crazy. It's pretty weird."
The only thing left for McNeil is to change the fortunes of the struggling program he has been tasked to lead this season.
St. Albans opens the season Dec. 15 at Riverside with designs on improving on a string of mediocrity which includes only one campaign above .500 since Coach Marshall Kiser took over in 2007. Their record since then is 44-67.
The Red Dragons haven't made the State Tournament since 2004 under Coach Tex Williams was guiding the team and son and State Player of the Year Adam Williams. That year they lost in the first round.
Their most recent appearance prior to that was 1998, when State Player of the Year Brett Nelson led the Red Dragons to the quarterfinals where they lost, again, in the first round.
The truth is, the St. Albans boys basketball history, unlike its pristine gymnasium with the bleachers on either side and ends and the huge dragon logo painted at center court, is not pretty.
McNeil expects that to change immediately.
"I don't even like to think about the past," said McNeil, who averaged close to 10 points last season when St. Albans finished a dismal 5-17. "You can't really compare that. We have a completely new look. We're not really looking in the past now. We're looking at this year's practice and this season, right now."
That's a fair point, considering the addition of 6-foot-2, 210-pound Thad Moss, the son of Randy Moss who not only brings positive attention to the program but athletic and basketball ability.
He'll move into the spot vacated by former center Anthony Bess, who transferred to Sissonville.
For McNeil's part, his admitted inconsistent contributions and lack of confidence are behind him.
He has spent almost every day since the Red Dragons' elimination from the 2011-12 postseason at the Active Sports Complex under the tutelage of Rahim Olden, toning his body and improving his agility and stamina for the grueling season.
For evidence, McNeil says, look at his AAU teammate and Nitro star Angelo Sirianni, who went from averaging seven points per game as a sophomore to 20 last year while training under Olden.
Much of that improvement comes with confidence, something that his workouts have improved immensely. He has gone from standing beyond the 3-point line and firing up long-range shots, to a willingness to take defenders off the dribble and attacking the bucket. Ironically, a broken left wrist - McNeil is a southpaw - helped him improve.
He took advantage of the opportunity to exclusively use his right hand for shooting, dribbling and driving in practice. The splint has been removed and is replaced by tape, but he hasn't replaced his mentality.
"My right hand dribbling feels almost as dominant as my left," McNeil said. "I figure I'll probably tape it up for every game, just to be safe."
As his game improves, so does the Red Dragons, even if their history doesn't include much worth talking about.
In addition to their two quarterfinal visits in the last 14 seasons, St. Albans lost in the championship game in 1985, '80 and '75, in the semifinals in '86 and '77, and in the quarterfinals in '88, '64 and '63. That's 10 State Tournament appearances for a school with a long history.
As for recent history, some of the issues have centered on scoring and chemistry, both of which have been solved.
"Chemistry is kind of a big thing right now. I know it's just practice, but I feel it," said McNeil, who was part of the last two teams at St. Albans which were a combined 12-32. "Moss came in and nobody knew what he would be like and he's just part of the team now.
"I talk to Thad and we both think we can get in the 20s almost every game and we'll win a lot of games this year. It's really not fair to compare him to Randy, but he's only 14 years old and he's going to have a huge role already.
"In the four years I've been here, this is probably the best group I've been with. I think we go pretty deep, we're athletic ... I'm looking forward to it."
St. Albans opens the regular season at Riverside on Dec. 14. The Red Dragons' home opener is Dec. 18 against Capital.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at email@example.com or 304-348-4837.