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100 years of hoops

Courtesy photo
Harry Stansbury, who hatched the idea of a state high school basketball tournament while still a West Virginia Wesleyan student in 1914, played quarterback for the Bobcats and led them to victories over WVU and Marshall in three straight years.
Courtesy photo The basketball and the championship trophy from the first boys high school state tournament in 1914 at West Virginia Wesleyan.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a student at West Virginia Wesleyan College one hundred years ago, Harry Stansbury was staying busy.

A Raleigh County native, he played quarterback and led the Bobcats to football victories over West Virginia and Marshall in three consecutive seasons. He was captain of the baseball team and manager of the basketball and track teams, as well as president of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Track Association.

While still a Wesleyan student, he became the school's athletic director in those embryotic years of college athletics, arranging schedules and typing up press releases that he mailed to area newspapers. Wesleyan's 1914 yearbook described him as a "born leader.''

Starting in 1917, three years after his graduation from Wesleyan, he spent 21 productive years as WVU's athletic director and helped bring about construction of the original Mountaineer Field and the Field House, which still bears his name.

But perhaps his greatest contribution to West Virginia athletics was the state high school basketball tournament, which will be staged for the 100th time starting Wednesday at the Charleston Civic Center.

Newspaper stories of the era say young Stansbury founded the tournament on the Wesleyan campus in Buckhannon in 1914. It started as a modest venture matching the state's two best teams, Elkins and Wheeling.

From there, it grew to an astonishing 72 teams in 1924, giving the little town of Buckhannon an early taste of hoops hysteria, and has settled in to an annual, high-profile sports staple that soon will begin its second century.

It's probably safe to say that Wesleyan's brand-new gymnasium, which opened in September of 1913 and survived until 1974, played a role in the tournament's birth. It's likely Stansbury or a business-minded Wesleyan higher-up saw a statewide basketball tournament as a way to showcase the new gym, which seated about 1,200 spectators and housed a pool, baseball batting cage and running track.

"Wesleyan can boast of having the finest gymnasium in the state,'' the school's 1914 yearbook proclaimed.

Moreover, Stansbury surely realized that the budding sport of basketball, which had been invented just 23 years earlier, would lend itself to a popular, cost-efficient tournament involving teams from throughout the state.

Whatever the case, he received the school's blessings and began spreading the word in early 1914 that Wesleyan would play host to a tournament in March of that year and that all schools would be welcome.

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  • As it turns out, the logistics of a full-fledged tournament on such short notice apparently proved too challenging, and thus only Elkins and Wheeling, the teams with the state's best records, played in what is considered the state's first high school basketball tournament on Saturday, March 21, 1914.

    Elkins won 28-13, having built a 15-6 halftime lead that proved insurmountable.

    A Wheeling Daily News correspondent captured the moment: "Both teams showed flashes of brilliant passing, but in this department, as well as basket shooting, Elkins excelled.''

    Elkins captain Harry Leslie led the Tigers with six goals and impressed the Daily News.

    "Leslie was undoubtedly the star of the game,'' the newspaper reported. "This red-headed chap seemed to be all over the floor and was the backbone of the Elkins offensive, as well as defensive, playing.''

    Elkins also held an advantage in crowd support, the Daily News added.

    "The Elkins contingent was particularly noisy, and enthusiasm was at a high pitch throughout the contest,'' said the newspaper.

    The Wheeling Register attributed part of Wheeling's problems to nerves.

    "After the start of the game, the Wheeling players seemed to be suffering somewhat from stage fright,'' the newspaper noted, "and fumbled passes and wild shots played havoc with their chances of scoring.''

    Describing the game in a brief front-page story the next day, the Elkins Inter-Mountain called the crowd "one of the largest ever to witness a basketball game in the state'' and said both coaches gave their teams "a severe grilling at halftime.''

    A few days earlier in a small preview, the Elkins paper reported that about 300 Elkins fans were expected to make the trip by train to Buckhannon.

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  • After the game, Wesleyan president Thomas Haught, an 1894 graduate of the college, addressed the players and presented the championship trophy to Leslie, the Elkins captain.

    The other four starters were Frank Wimer, Harry Whetsell, Carl Radcliffe and Jerome Madden. The reserves were Lawrence Parmesano, Hubert Tonry and Howard Ellifritz. Wimer and Whetsell later played at West Virginia University, and Wimer spent much of his life as a coach at Elkins High School.

    The Tigers were coached by C.W. Jackson and played their home games at the Elkins YMCA, a building that still stands on Davis Avenue.

    Leslie, who played basketball for Davis & Elkins College the following year, died of pneumonia on March 19, 1915, almost exactly a year after leading his team to a state championship.

    The Wheeling players were John Creighton, Howard Nay, Ed Mathews, William Boyce, Herman Hamilton, James Bachman and George Ford. The coach was J.H. Thornton.

    Each Elkins player was given a miniature metal basketball, a keepsake suitable for a necklace or keychain. Wesleyan paid the train fare for both teams.

    During the regular season, the teams split their two meetings, Elkins winning 42-18 at home and Wheeling avenging the loss by rallying from a four-point halftime deficit to win 31-23 in Wheeling. It was the Tigers' only loss of the season and, in fact, their only setback in the last two seasons. Wheeling had lost one other game that year, at Parkersburg.

    The first public announcement of the proposed tournament came on March 5, 1914, in an Associated Press story distributed to state newspapers.

    The story read: "March 21 has been suggested to all high school basketball teams, which have sent their records for the 1913-14 season, as the date for the state high school basketball tournament.''

    Not long after that first title game, the Wheeling Intelligencer observed: "Wesleyan at first planned a general tournament to decide the championship for high schools, but when it came down to the end of the regularly scheduled games . . . it was found that Wheeling and Elkins were really the only teams having a claim to the title.''

    In a 1938 Daily Mail story, Thornton, the former Wheeling coach, recalled that the idea of a tournament in 1914 was conceived too late in the season to arrange an elaborate tournament.

    Nevertheless, the people involved expected the tourney to continue and thrive in future years.

    "It is understood to be the intention of Wesleyan,'' a Wheeling Register sportswriter wrote nearly 100 years ago, "to make the basketball championship an annual affair.''

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  • Stansbury began work as West Virginia's athletic director in 1917 and soon saw the need for a new football stadium and basketball arena. His efforts led to the opening of 38,000-seat Mountaineer Field in 1924 and the 6,000-seat Field House four years later.

    The old Field House survives as Stansbury Hall, serving as home for intramurals and academic needs.

    A year after the Field House opened, Stansbury introduced the WVU Indoor Track Games and eventually brought U.S. Olympic greats Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and Eddie Tolan to compete there. He added wrestling and boxing to the Mountaineers' list of intercollegiate sports.

    As athletic director, he often accompanied various Mountaineer teams on the road and, making use of the sportswriting skills he acquired as a Wesleyan student, wrote lengthy game stories that he sent to state newspapers. He also wrote midweek stories and updates on practices.

    The late Eddie Barrett, who worked as West Virginia's sports information director in the 1950s and later earned the distinction as the school's sports historian, developed a friendship with Stansbury in those years. By that time, the former Mountaineer athletic director, who died in 1966, had become something of a West Virginia icon.

    "Stansbury was a promoter, and he started a lot of things,'' Barrett said in a 2012 Gazette interview. "He decided on his own to match Wheeling against Elkins in the state high school basketball tournament. It was arbitrary on his part. He made decisions on his own. I was privileged to know him.''

    Reach Mike Whiteford at mikewhiteford@wvgazette.com.


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