West Liberty basketball receives high rankings in MEC preseason poll

Women’s Basketball roster 2022/23

The Mountain East Conference released their preseason coaches polls for both Men’s and Women’s basketball last Monday, with West Liberty being ranked at #1 and #3 respectively. After winning the conference championship last season, the men were ranked at the top spot for the fifth time, while the Lady Hilltoppers received their highest preseason ranking since head coach Kyle Cooper took the job six years ago.

Reigning NCAA Division II National Champions, Glenville State, received 118 points and 12 first place votes as they received the first place ranking on the women’s side. Charleston closely followed at #2 with three first place votes and 111 points, nine more than WLU. West Liberty received one first place vote which was their first since 2018.
It was slightly closer at the top of the men’s rankings, with the Toppers piping rivals Fairmont State to top spot by just two points. The Falcons received six first place votes, which was one more than WLU, while West Virginia State got the remaining vote.

Both programs will be hoping to make this season a memorable one, with each team coming off the back of an impressive season. Ben Howlett’s hilltoppers have experienced a lot of turnover in the last year as they return seven members of the team that were crowned MEC Tournament champions in March.

After Viktor Kovacevic, Christian Montague and Garrett Denbow each had impressive seasons after transferring to the hilltop last year, Howlett has gone back into the NCAA Transfer Portal and added four transfers to the roster for this season. Stephen Cannady, Alek West, Chaz Hinds and Michael Sampson will add experience to a youthful Hilltopper roster that includes just one senior. Also joining the West Liberty roster are freshmen Grant Barnhart, Finley Woodward and Vidan Dronjak.

The hilltoppers will be without MEC standouts Pat Robinson and Will Yoakum this season, with Robinson following in Dalton Bolon’s footsteps and transferring to NCAA Division I program the College of Charleston, while Yoakum has took his skills down south and will be playing for former West Liberty head coach, Jim Crutchfield, at Nova Southeastern this season.
They still boast a strong set of returns with Byrce Butler, Christian Montague and Byrce Butler being the pick of the returning players. Hilltopper fans will be excited to see Butler back in action with last year’s MEC Player of the Season coming fresh off of featuring in the USA 3×3 U23 Nations League Team, being the lone NCAA DII player on the squad.

West Liberty’s women’s basketball team will be eager to have another positive season, after finishing with an impressive 21-9 record last season, which saw them reach the MEC Tournament semi-finals. While they will be without All-American Audrey Tingle, who will be taking up an assistant coaching role this season, they have added a talented class of recruits that will strengthen their roster for this upcoming season.

Amongst the new recruits are international transfers Natalija Sekulovska and Sonia Sarda. Sekulovska is a transfer from NCAA Division I Duquesne and has extensive international experience having featured for the Macedonian U20 National Team a number of times. Sarda is a 5-6 graduate guard from Granollers, Spain who played at regionally ranked Seton Hill, Pa. last year.

Cooper has also recruited four freshmen to join the squad with Ohio natives Bailey Beckstedt, Grace Lyon and Olivia Baker, as well as Mineral County local Halley Smith, making up this year’s recruiting class. The hilltoppers return eight players from last year’s roster, with Corinne Thomas and Bailee Smith looking to build on their performances that saw them named to the MEC All-Conference teams last season. Thomas, a 5-8 junior shooting guard from New Carlisle, Ohio, was named on the All-MEC First Team while fellow Ohio native and true freshmen, Smith, was given Second Team honors and was also named as MEC Freshman of the Year.

The men’s basketball team will start their season with a home matchup against Shepherd on Nov. 11 as they host the Atlantic Region Crossover Tournament, while the women’s team will get underway with a roadtrip to face California University of Pennsylvania on the same day. Both teams will begin MEC action with a trip to the Alderson Broaddus Battlers on Saturday, Nov. 19.