By RUSTY UDY
FAIRLEA, W.Va. — Less than one month after being elected Governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice crossed another huge milestone — his 1,000th career victory as a basketball coach.
The Greenbrier East Lady Spartans provided that milestone victory with an 83-34 win over Midland Trail in the season opener for both teams and the first game for Justice since the election.
But in typical Jim Justice fashion, the wins were not at the top of his list on this night.
“To be perfectly honest, the thousand part is really nice, but what really means a lot is the fact that I have been able to be with these kids in so many different years and with their families,” the Greenbrier East coach and Governor-elect said. “I got to coach (son) Jay and (daughter) Jill, and (wife) Cathy was able to be with me. Then to have players call me and say, ‘Coach, I am getting married,’ ‘Coach, I am having a baby’ or ‘Coach, I just got my first job,’ that is what means the most.”
Justice has coached at all levels of basketball, from Christian youth teams, to Park Junior High in Beckley and several different AAU squads, including two YBOA national champions.
At Greenbrier East, Justice has taken the Lady Spartans to the state tournament nine times since becoming head coach. The Lady Spartans reached the top of the mountain when they won the Class AAA state championship in 2012.
A year later, Justice led that team to an undefeated regular season, despite losing two of the top players from the title run. That accomplishment earned him Register-Herald Girls Basketball Coach of the Year.
In 2015, he led the Spartans boys team to a 20-win season for just the second time in school history. The Spartans upset No. 1 Capital in a region co-final to punch their ticket to the state tournament for the first time since 2002 and just the third time in 30 years.
“Coaching basketball is one of the things I love to do,” said Justice. “I’ve coached everything from elementary to semi-pro and junior high to AAU, and I really enjoy being with the kids. Wins are important. My dad always said not to confuse effort with accomplishment, so I definitely want to win. But I also want to teach the kids something outside of basketball. I’ve been lucky enough to do both, and that means a lot to me. I’ll treasure this knowing I did my best to make a positive impact on a lot of young kids.”
The milestone event also brought out a vast array of dignitaries in the crowd, including former WVU head coach Don Nehlen, former Marshall head coach Bob Pruett and Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
“This is really special to have everyone here and to have my family here,” Justice said. “It is unbelievable to have Bo here. It really and truly is, he didn’t have to come here tonight. He is a great personal friend and a good, good man.”
As for the game, No. 7-ranked Greenbrier East had too much speed and size for a talented Midland Trail team.
The Lady Spartans attacked quickly, building a 20-0 lead in the first five minutes, and never looked back.
“Our team can be really tough this year because they have so many dimensions,” Justice said. “They shoot the ball well, have good speed and good size, so they can be tough. They are really young. We only have two seniors, so we will see how it goes.”
The score was 26-2 after the first quarter, but the Lady Patriots scrapped the whole game and responded with two 3-pointers each from junior Mickey Hights and sophomore Jenny Wilson.
However three long bombs from sharp-shooter Katie Wilmer neutralized the Trail run and East would go to the half with a 41-17 advantage.
At the half, the Lady Spartans’ size and speed reflected in the statistics. East had 22 points off turnovers and 18 points in the paint.
In the third quarter, the Lady Spartans put the game away. East’s defense swarmed the smaller Lady Patriots, holding them scoreless until the final minute of the quarter.
Wilmer ended the game as the leading scorer with 21 points, and Kiara Smith added 11. Twelve Lady Spartans scored on the memorable night.
Wilson led Trail with nine points, Mallory Stonestreet added seven and Hights had six.
Justice will be sworn in as the 36th governor of West Virginia on Jan. 16, 2017, but he plans to continue doing what he loves the most — coaching and helping kids.
“That is a lot of games, but I love the game and I love kids,” he said. “The game of basketball seems to me to be the closest to life. You go to your highest highs and your lowest lows. It cycles real quickly, but if you hang in there it will come back for you.”
The Lady Spartans return to action Saturday at Buckhannon-Upshur.
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