By LARRY “SCOOP” McCARTY
GREERS FERRY – The West Side Eagles hope to earn its place in school history and become the third team to win a state basketball championship.
West Side (28-6) will play conference rival Viola at 7 p.m. Thursday for the Class A state tournament championship at the Bank OZK Arena in Hot Springs.
The Eagles look to duplicate the accomplishment of the 1983 team that capped that season with a 43-42 win against Gould in the state finals. West Side finished that year at 36-1 with its only loss to Camden Fairview at the state overall tournament.
The Lady Eagles won the 1999 state championship.
“We know what the 1983 team did and hope that people will talk the same way about the 2021 team in 20 years,” West Side coach Keith Brown said. “We respect everything that team did. That gives them more incentive to win. We have received great support from those guys as well as other alumni. We want to keep the tradition going.”
“Winning a state championship would mean everything,” starting guard Travis Gentry said. “I’ve been at this school for most of my life and watched all of the teams play.”
Gentry said he welcomed the opportunity of playing in Thursday’s game.
“I’m happy for the opportunity to lead the team to the state championship game,” he said. “Going into the season, I felt this might happen. We didn’t end our season last year well. I felt like it could happen if we played well.”
Gentry said he and his teammates admire the 1983 team and hope fans will remember this year’s team in a similar way.
“We want people to talk about us in 20 years like they are talking now about the 1983 team,” he said. “We hope they will talk about us for years to come.”
Senior Zack Birmingham made two of the most important free throws of season late in overtime against Izard County. Birmingham’s free throw clinched a win and a spot in the state finals.
“I had a similar experience in junior high, but that game was not as big,” Birmingham said. “I knew the first one was going in because of how I felt when the ball left my hand. The second free throw didn’t feel as comfortable, but it went in.”
Birmingham has attended West Side school since kindergarten and winning the title would cap his senior season.
“It would mean a lot if we won,” he said. “I am glad to be a part of this team. I can’t wait to get to Hot Springs.”
Brenton Knapp moved to West Side at the start of his fifth grade year. Knapp remembered games during recent years, and he hopes this year’s team will bring back the state championship to the school.
“It would mean the world to me,” he said. “I came to many games and watched teams that came close. We have a chip on our shoulders after losing last year at the district tournament We wanted to come back strong and take care of unfinished business.”
Knapp said he and his teammates wants to win and add to the trophy case.
“We hope to become the third team to win a state championship,” he said. “I just want to contribute to the team. My role is to rebound and score on putbacks and whatever else the team needs me to do.”
Seniors Jake Ballard and Malachi Miller arrived before the start of last season.
Ballard played a big role in the win against Izard County by hitting four 3-pointers and scoring 14 points. He hopes to earn a championship ring and match the accomplishment of his brother, who was a member of the 2017 state champion Guy-Perkins.
“We hit our stride during the second half and realized we could win the game,” referring to Monday’s semifinals, Ballard said. “I made two threes early in the game and two more threes during the second half. I needed to make those shots to get us back in the game.”
Despite playing with new teammates, Ballard said he was accepted from the beginning and happy to be playing for the Eagles.
“I was accepted right away,” Ballard said. “I remember my first game when fans told me they were glad I decided to come to West Side.”
Ballard said he heard the stories about the 1983 team and glad to be a part of the team that may bring back another championship.
“I’m looking forward to playing in Hot Springs with guys like coach Brown, Malachi, Travis and everyone on the team.” Ballard said. “This is a great group of guys to be around. It would mean the world to win on Thursday.”
Miller, who scored a game-high 25 points against Izard County, said he also felt welcomed from his first day at West Side.
“I felt a part of this team since I came,” Miller said. “I knew we had a good chance to be where we are right now. Stats are not that important. I’m happy we are winning games whether I have 10 rebounds or scoring 10 points. It’s a great feeling to have a chance at making history.”
West Side practiced on Tuesday afternoon and left at noon Wednesday for Hot Springs. The Eagles plan their final practice at Lake Hamilton High School before the championship game.
“I tried to keep practice as normal as possible,” Brown said. “We know Viola well. We will be trying to do things different, so we can have success. Neither team will have anything to hide after playing so many times. It will come down which team executes its game plan better.”
West Side and Viola split games during conference play. Viola defeated the Eagles in the finals of the conference and regional tournaments.
“The big keys are taking good care of the ball and rebounding,” he said.