By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
In the spring of 1974 Bluefield businessman Allen Coppinger, a baseball enthusiast and Bluefield High School coach John Chmara put together an in-season baseball tournament at Bluefield’s Bowen Field.
The Bluefield Invitational as it was then known featured eight teams and the East Bank Pioneers survived to win the championship.
Friday night at Bowen Field the 40th annual Coppinger Invitational Tournament will open as the Bluefield Beavers take on the Montcalm Generals. First round play continues Saturday with games in Bluefield, Princeton and Tazewell. Fourteen teams will take to the field in hopes of winning the tournament title.
One person who was involved in the inaugural event and in this year’s tournament is director Jeff Boyles. Boyles was a player for Princeton High School in 1974 and for several years now he has been the “commissioner” of the Coppinger. Boyles knew both of the founders and talked about the product they created.
“I think it’s fortunate that we had people like Allen Coppinger and John Chmara that envisioned a tournament like this so that the kids in the area would be able to play on a good facility, good field, and now we’ve expanded to Hunnicutt and Lou Peery Field as well.
“This tournament is a way to honor those people who got this whole thing started. And to have all the local teams, coaches and fans continue to support the event as well as they have, it’s just a testimony to Mr. Coppinger and Coach Chmara. They’re the ones who really started it, along with Coach (Glynn) Carlock.”
Boyles has seen the tournament evolve in its four decades of existence. It began with eight teams and has had as many as 16 schools involved. It has been single elimination, double-elimination, round-robin and pool play for the teams. This year is single elimination and involves 14 teams.
“The single elimination, I think, adds a little more tournament-type atmosphere as these teams are preparing for their district and sectional play,” Boyles said. “It gives a little more importance than the round-robin. This way you know if you don’t play well, if you don’t play your best, you take a chance on being eliminated from the tournament.”
Boyles pointed out some of the players who went on to college and professional baseball careers that played in the Coppinger.
“You look back over the years and there’s Billy Wagner of Tazewell, Tim McMillian from Oak Hill back in the early ‘80s,” Boyles noted. “You had all those great players there at Mount View over the years. Curt Warner from Pineville went on to be an all-pro running back in the NFL. You have Joey Church from PikeView and Zak Wasilewski from Tazewell who just started their pro careers last year. There have been some great players who have played in this tournament over the years.”
Asked how public support of the event has been over the years, Boyles said despite the changing landscape of the area, support is still strong.
“I think people still support the Coppinger very well,” Boyles said. “Of course you go back 40 years and Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia have changed a lot. Just looking at the population of the schools, 40 years ago Bluefield High had a population of probably 1,300 kids and now we’re about half that. You turn to McDowell County you had Welch and the great teams that they had, Gary, Big Creek, Northfork and Iaeger and now they’re all consolidated into a couple of schools. The demographics of the who area have changed but we still see a lot of support. Every year you see people that don’t have children that are playing coming and watching good baseball.”
Boyles said the tournament would not be possible without those who dedicate their time each year to the event.
“Coach Tony Colabro and Coach Ergie Smith are co-directors of the tournament,” Boyles said. “Coach Smith pretty much takes care of the umpires. You’ve got Mike Myles, Bob Redd, Ray Maupin, Danny Gaither, George McGonagle.
“I’d be remised by not mentioning George, who has worked with us for numbers of years and the new director with the Blue Jays, Jeff Gray, who seems to be very enthusiastic about it. You’ve also got Coach (Mike) White at Bluefield College who’s team the last few years has helped us with the grounds. And at the Princeton facility there is Jim Holland and Mick Bayle, and of course Lou Peery in Tazewell has been very helpful over the years.”
Asked about the future of the Coppinger and what has to be done to make it another 40 years Boyles laughed and said, “I don’t know what somebody else is going to have to do to make it 40 more.”
He then added, “If you continue to offer a quality tournament, if you get as good as competition as you possibly can and promote it as well as you can promote it, I think you will still continue to have it as long as someone is willing to do the work.”
After Friday’s opening game and games in Bluefield, Princeton and Tazewell on Saturday, all the games move to Bowen Field where quarterfinal action will take place Monday and Tuesday with the semifinals and final on Saturday, April 27.
See complete tournament schedule on B-3.