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Amid challenges, boys tourney thrived in Buckhannon

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Soon after the start of the 1914-15 high school basketball season, officials at West Virginia Wesleyan College began making plans and stirring up interest in another state tournament. 

It would be West Virginia's second annual high school tournament, the logical followup to the inaugural tourney that had been a success - albeit simply as a two-team event - in March of 1914 at Wesleyan.

The college already had made it known the state tournament would be an annual fixture in boys high school basketball and that its new gymnasium in the middle of campus would be its home for years, maybe decades, to come. And, in fact, the tournament remained there through the 1938 season.

In preparation for the 1915 tourney, Wesleyan sent letters to the state's high schools, inviting their teams to the tournament, informing them that all schools were welcome and instructing them on such matters as lodging, dining and playing dates.

The college's letters brought an overwhelming response.

"From every section of the state, letters are coming in, asking more detailed information than that contained in circular letters sent out relative to the affair,'' the Fairmont Times reported on Jan. 4, 1915.

The Times went on to predict the tournament would be "the biggest athletic event the state of West Virginia ever witnessed.''

Because Wesleyan had undertaken the initial tournament project late in the 1913-14 season, it had been forced to settle for just two teams that were considered the state's best, Elkins and Wheeling.

The tourney scheduled for March of 1915, however, would be open to all teams, a benevolent offer that nonetheless posed some difficult questions: How many schools would accept the invitation, where would fans stay and would one gym floor be enough to handle the onslaught of games?

Hotel space was insufficient, but Wesleyan solved the housing shortage by calling on townspeople to make their attics, basements and spare rooms available to the teams. When the Buckhannon newspaper published stories asking residents to open their homes, they responded enthusiastically.

The Parkersburg News, previewing the 72-team tournament of 1924, assured its readers the Big Reds would be staying at a home at 100 Florida St. in Buckhannon.

Despite the challenges, the tournament enjoyed a rich 25-year run on the Wesleyan campus and earned a niche in West Virginia basketball lore. Along the way, Buckhannon and its 3,500 residents demonstrated their logistical ingenuity by finding ways to accommodate the basketball multitudes.

The 72-team tournament of 1924 was the state's biggest ever and attracted such long-forgotten schools as Wadestown, Wallace, Cairo, Smithfield, Jacksonburg, Cowen, Bristol, Renwood, Jane Lew, Greenbank and Burnsville. Originally, 80 teams registered that year, but eight, including Huntington, dropped out.

But by 1939, the tournament had outgrown the Upshur County town and moved to the 6,000-seat Field House on the West Virginia University campus, where it began a somewhat more nomadic run, finding homes in Morgantown, Huntington and Charleston.

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  • The tournament in March of 1915 attracted 14 teams. It was a respectable turnout at a time when travel was sometimes difficult, housing raised questions and the tournament itself had not yet established credibility.

    The numbers increased to 24 teams in 1916 and 28 the following year, and all teams competed in one division without regard to school size.

    Starting in 1922, tournament officials split the field into divisions A and B, depending on enrollment. In 1925, they did away with the open-to-all approach and adopted a sectional-regional format, in which teams earned their way to Buckhannon.

    In 1924's 72-team tournament, 32 teams competed in Division A and 40 in Division B, and the tournament was completed in three days. The Fairmont Times called it "probably the biggest in the country.''

    Under the sectional-regional format in 1925, 16 teams in each of the A and B divisions qualified for the Buckhannon tournament.

    Play continued with the A and B divisions until returning to the one-class format from 1943-48. It again used A and B divisions from 1949 to 1958, when it introduced the current Class AAA-AA-A format for the 1959 tournament.

    From the tournament's beginnings, the Wesleyan folks knew they needed to improvise to accommodate what they envisioned as an ever-growing number of teams.

    With that in mind, they scheduled games half-court style in the tournament's early rounds, thereby allowing two games to be played simultaneously and, as the event grew, as many as 16 games in one day.

    In addition, the early-round games were shortened from the standard 32 minutes to 25, which not only eased scheduling but helped lessen fatigue in a tournament that sometimes required teams to play five games in three days or four in two. In some years, games would start at 9 a.m. and continue into the night.

    Playing four games in two days, however, probably was a bit less taxing physically a century ago than it would be today. The fast break had not yet arrived and, instead, teams worked the ball methodically around the perimeter. After each basket, teams returned to midcourt for a center jump, one of the game's original rules that would continue until 1938.

    The game differed in other ways. The preferred offensive weapon of the day was the set shot; the jump shot would have to wait for a later generation. Player substitutions were minimal; rosters usually consisted of fewer than 10 players. The basketballs had laces similar to those on a football.

    In the tournament's early years, sometimes just one official worked a game; in later years, there were two. To determine tournament pairings for each round, a local dignitary - sometimes the Buckhannon mayor - literally drew school names out of a hat in full view of spectators, lest someone suspect hanky-panky.

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  • By the tournament's third year, excitement had picked up considerably. "No athletic event ever staged in the state has attracted such widespread interest,'' the Parkersburg Sentinel said in preparation for the 1916 tournament. "The results not only will be watched by the thousand or more spectators but by the state at large with acute interest.''

    The Gazette said that, as a statewide sports spectacle, the 1917 tournament ranked second only to West Virginia's football game with West Virginia Wesleyan.

    "The fourth annual West Virginia tournament to be held at Buckhannon on Friday and Saturday has steadily increased in popularity so that no athletic event staged in the mountain state of West Virginia, except the WVU-Wesleyan football game, draws a larger crowd of spectators,'' the newspaper noted.

    The Gazette in 1917 also predicted "there will be a magnificent burst of spirit and ecstasy and elevated fancy for the teams in play.''

    The Clarksburg Exponent in 1924 called the tournament crowd "a roaring volcano of youthful voices.''

    The fans, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy themselves. "There is a din and noise that never ceases,'' the Gazette reported in describing the 1925 tournament, "caused by high excitement and nerves strung taught [sic] to the breaking point.''

    Perhaps caught up in the excitement, the Associated Press often lapsed into hyperbole, estimating that 3,000 and sometimes 4,000 fans would attend games in the 1,200-seat gym.

    To help the players and coaches enjoy their stay, Wesleyan students worked with each of the teams, ensuring that they had a place to stay and transportation to and from the gym. Massage therapists offered rubdowns for the players after each game and even at halftime.

    Teams sometimes practiced at Buckhannon High School's gym a few blocks down College Avenue. Downtown stores decorated their storefront windows with pictures of star players.

    The players and coaches generally ate at a Wesleyan dining hall, but fans, media and officials made their way downtown to the Busy Bee Restaurant on South Kanawha Street, the Coney Island Restaurant on East Main and the Palace on North Kanawha.

    To accommodate the fans' travel plans, the B&O Railroad increased the number of coaches bound for Buckhannon. Fans unable to find hotel accommodations in Buckhannon stayed in nearby Weston and made the daily commute on special trains assigned to handle the tournament crowds.

    Uniformed state policemen worked security at each game and even helped fans find seats.

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  • With 14 teams in the field, the 1915 event was the first to have a true tournament feel. Teams competing were Buckhannon, Charleston, Clarksburg, Elkins, Fairmont, Fairview, Parkersburg, Piedmont, Salem, Sistersville, Thomas, Wellsburg, Weston and Wheeling.

    Elkins and Parkersburg were considered the favorites, but Charleston defeated Thomas, Parkersburg and Fairmont to reach the finals and downed Wellsburg 36-24 for the title.

    The Charleston starting five consisted of Noyes Palmer, Homer Martin, David Martin, Mayre Stark and Frank Thomas. The reserves were Cyrus Silling, Leonard Lewis, Frederick Lively, Fred White and Mike B'Sherah. The coaches were Rocco Gorman and Norman Baker.

    The Mountain Lions stayed with the same five players for the entire tournament, not using a single substitute in any of the four games.

    A three-paragraph story appeared on the front page of the next day's Gazette under the headline: "Local High Wins Championship.'' Stark and the two Martins were the "star performers,'' the Gazette reported.

    To win the two-day tourney, the Mountain Lions played one game on Friday and three on Saturday.

    They wore red-and-blue uniforms in those days and played their home games in the National Guard Armory, a red brick structure that's now home to the Scottish Rite Temple at 406 Capitol Street near Washington Street.

    The high school was located on what is now the YWCA parking lot on Quarrier Street but, in a reflection of the city's rapid growth, moved to a new, larger building in January of 1916 on the corner of Morris and Quarrier streets.

    After the 1915 title game, Wesleyan president Carl Doney presented the CHS players with a silver trophy, and each Mountain Lion received a gold-colored basketball.

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  • The tournament's growth coincided with and undoubtedly contributed to the emergence of the sports section in West Virginia newspapers - nearly 40 years after William Randolph Hearst in 1885 created the first sports section in the New York Journal.

    Not only was the annual state basketball tournament producing a demand for coverage, but West Virginia University football, fueled by the Mountaineers' 10-0-1 record in 1922, had gained such popularity that the school opened 38,000-seat Mountaineer Field in 1925. It added the 6,000-seat Field House three years later. Marshall built 10,000-seat Fairfield Stadium in 1928.

    In the first two decades of the 20th century, state newspapers were haphazard in their coverage of high school and college sports, sometimes publishing brief, one-column previews and accounts of games but often ignoring the games altogether.

    But by the 1920s, papers had begun devoting space for what is now known as the sports section, and reporters were hired strictly to cover sports. Column writing made its state debut, allowing sportswriters to offer their analyses and insights, take strong partisan stances and, most antagonistically, deliver verbal potshots at rival schools and communities.

    In terms of sports journalism, it was a colorful, freewheeling era - and quite provincial. If a local team suffered an especially disappointing loss on the road, the columnist back home might attribute the defeat to "home cooking.''

    Or, a columnist might fuel the spread of a delicious rumor, hinting, for example, that a star athlete at one high school might soon be lured away to a rival.

    Bill Evans, a 19-year-old sportswriter and columnist for the Fairmont Times, undoubtedly offended the Eastern Panhandle in his preview of the 1927 tournament. "Unless the [panhandle] teams are much better than usual, nothing need be feared,'' Evans wrote, "for never in this writer's recollection have the panhandle teams been anything but cannon fodder for the other outfits in the big meet.''

    Huntington Herald-Dispatch columnist Duke Ridgley, writing a day after his beloved Huntington Pony Express defeated the Princeton Tigers for the 1937 championship, gloated at considerable length - and did so in flowery, alliterative language that was common at the time.

    "The Red and Blue dribblers,'' he boasted, "not only ambushed the men from Mercer but today they have their basketball boudoir decorated with a beautiful Tiger skin.''

    Ridgley even conjured up a betting line after the fact, perhaps to certify the incalculable obstacles the Pony Express was forced to overcome.

    "The odds against the Red and Blue rolling home with the potatoes at Buckhannon were 10 to 1,'' he wrote, " but that didn't keep the Cabell cagers from going through the field like nutmeg through a grater.''

    The people of Huntington, he noted, were pleased "down to their fingertips.''

    To accommodate the increased coverage, the tournament directors established a press row, much like today with assigned seating and nametags for each reporter. Beginning with the 1927 tournament, Western Union telegraph facilities were made available in the gym, allowing sportswriters to transmit stories and information to papers throughout the state.

    But after 25 years, capped by overflow crowds in the 1938 finale, the tournament became too much for Buckhannon and the Wesleyan gym.

    Daily Mail sports editor Con Hardman apparently knew a change was coming and, on the day after the 1938 tourney, wrote prophetically: "Wesleyan does a great job of putting the tournament over, but under present conditions, the thing has outgrown the ramshackle gym here. Don't be surprised if the meet goes to Morgantown next year.''

    Reach Mike Whiteford at mikewhiteford@wvgazette.com.

     


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