Bryan O’Neill envisioned big things for the Waggener High School boys’ basketball program when he took over in 2011, and the Wildcats will get to experience one of them this week.
For the first time since 2000, Waggener qualified for the Republic Bank Louisville Invitational Tournament. The eighth-seeded Wildcats will face ninth-seeded Fern Creek at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in a second-round game at Valley.
“It’s something that’s really important to us,” O’Neill said. “We’ve been building this program since I got here three years ago, and we’ve really used getting to the LIT as a measuring stick for what we’ve accomplished.”
The 20-team LIT will tip off at 3:30 p.m. today when Western faces Holy Cross in a first-round game. Second-round games are set for Tuesday and Wednesday, with quarterfinals slated for Friday. The semifinals (10 and 11:30 a.m.) and final (8 p.m.) are set for Saturday.
The field includes five teams ranked among the state’s Top 20 in The Courier-Journal’s Litkenhous Ratings — No. 1 Ballard, No. 3 Trinity, No. 8 Pleasure Ridge Park, No. 10 Iroquois and No. 19 Jeffersontown.
Waggener hasn’t quite joined the city’s elite teams yet, but the Wildcats certainly are on an uptick.
The Wildcats enter the LIT with a 10-3 record and own victories over Fairdale, Central and Jeffersontown. They’re hoping for their first winning season since going 22-6 in 2007-08 and their first trip to the Seventh Region Tournament since 1999.
“There’s been a lot of excitement generated around the school,” O’Neill said. “We’re trying to turn around the image of this school, and this has been great for us.”
The Wildcats have done it with a young lineup, as a freshman and three sophomores rank as the team’s top four scorers.
Freshman guard Devon Cooper leads the team with 16.2 points per games. Sophomores Kevin Kirby (10.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Brandon Wells (9.8 ppg) and Jaalam Hill (7.2 ppg) are the other top scorers.
O’Neill said Cooper has been impressive because he scores within the flow of the team’s offense.
“He’s not one of those kids who’s out to make plays,” O’Neill said. “The other guys are looking for him, and he’s making shots. It’s been impressive to watch him.”
Cooper scored 18 points in Friday’s 87-70 loss to Ballard. Bruins coach Chris Renner was impressed with the Wildcats.
“The difference is their talent level,” Renner said. “They now have players at multiple spots who can make plays. … They’re a team that has potential in the next couple of years to be one of the major players in the region.”
Ballard figures to be a major player in the LIT, a tournament it hasn’t won since 2007. The Bruins are the No. 3 seed in the LIT — based on the SETH Ratings used by the tournament committee — despite being a consensus No. 1 pick in all state rankings.
Renner called the No. 3 seed “comical” but said it’s ultimately meaningless.
“When it comes down to it, who cares where you’re seeded?” he said. “You have to win four games.”
Top-seeded Bullitt East enters with a 14-1 record, its only loss to coming to Lincoln County, 78-66, on Dec. 21.
Second-seeded Trinity (11-2) has won the past two LITs and three of the past four. The Shamrocks lost to Ballard 65-54 on Dec. 23 in the final of the King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic at Fairdale.
REPUBLIC BANK BOYS’ LIT
Monday-Saturday at Valley High School
(seeds in parentheses)
(13) Western vs. (20) Holy Cross, 3:30 p.m .
(14) Butler vs. (19) KCD, 5 p.m.
(16) Jeffersontown vs. (17) Male, 6:30 p.m.
(15) DeSales vs. (18) Seneca, 8:15 p.m.\
(7) Manual vs. (10) Iroquois, 3:30 p.m.
(6) Doss vs. (11) Eastern, 5 p.m.
(8) Waggener vs. (9) Fern Creek, 6:30 p.m.
(5) PRP vs. (12) Fairdale, 8:15 p.m.
(1) Bullitt East vs. Jtown-Male winner, 3:30 p.m.
(4) St. Xavier vs. Western-Holy Cross winner, 5 p.m.
(3) Ballard vs. Butler-KCD winner, 6:30 p.m.
(2) Trinity vs. DeSDales-Seneca winer, 8:15 p.m.
Quarter finals, 4, 5:30, 7 and 8:30 p.m.
Semifinals 10 and 11:30 a.m. Final, 8 p.m.