By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
With the naming of the All-Four Seasons Country team and the Pocahontas Coal Association/Bluefield Daily Telegraph Player of the Year banquet, basketball season in the area can officially be declared closed.
West Liberty is still alive and will be the last West Virginia Conference team to ever play a hoops game. They are in the NCAA Division II semifinals and will play Saturday afternoon in Louisville, Ky., against Metro State.
Locally the celebrations for the state champion Bluefield Beavers have concluded with state and local awards going to several players and head coach Buster Large.
The state tournament in Charleston is always one of my favorite annual events, but this year I was unable to attend. Several people noticed I was missing and one Bluefield fan said that since the Beavers won, I need to stay away in the future, that I was the bad-luck charm. See, I was on hand when Bluefield lost in 1999, 2006 and 2012.
One person in attendance throughout championship week in Charleston was someone I consider a mentor and friend, Ergie Smith. ‘Coach,’ as I have called him the entire time I have known him, which is all my life, was honored as one of the top 100 coaches in West Virginia State Tournament history, compiled by the Charleston Daily Mail.
Smith coached three teams in the tournament, the 1962 and 1965 Gary District Bulldogs and the 1973 Gary Coaldiggers. The ‘62 Gary District team was the first black school to play in an integrated state tournament. They lost in the AA championship game. Three years later, playing in Class A, the Bulldogs in their final year of existence won the state championship.
That game would be Smith’s last on the bench for six years as he left the profession. Upon his return in the 1972-73 season he led the Gary Coaldiggers to the Class AA title.
Coach and I talk from time to time and recently he shared some of his thoughts about the state tournament and how it has evolved over the years.
Smith was one of the speakers at the Centennial Banquet and he said it was a magnificent achievement by the founders to get the tournament started without a blueprint to follow, and the WVSSAC for keeping it going over the years. He said some of the things that have made the tournament a success over the years was first and foremost moving it to Charleston and making it more than a basketball tournament, turning it into a family event.
Second he believed the addition of African-American teams to the tournament and how they contributed to the tournament following the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. It was, however, eight years before an all-black school played in the event, that coming in 1962. Mullens Conley was the first all-black school to win a state championship, that coming in Class A in 1963.
There have been changes to the tournament over the years and Smith said the biggest one he has seen was enacted a few years ago when the two teams that advance to the sectional championship game both advance to regional play.
“I would have loved it and most coaches would have loved it,” Smith said. “Even if you had the better team, there was always that chance you would meet a hot team or have a bad night, you might be gone.”
Smith’s Gary Coaldiggers from 1974-78 would have benefited from such an arrangement as they lost in each of those years in the sectional championship game to eventual state champion Northfork.
He believes that better teams are more likely now to be in the state tournament. He also praised the seeding of the teams because in the past with matchups predetermined based on regions, the two best teams at times played in the first round of the tournament. Now the top two teams, barring an upset, would meet in the finals.
“That (seeding) now makes your schedule and record relevant,” Smith commented. “Now that means something. Before you could win 25 straight games and they pull you out of a hat and say play the next team that is 25-0.”
Smith also credited the three classifications, added in 1959, the expansion of teams in each class from four to eight, and the addition of the three point shot as significant changes that have made the tournament more exciting.
In addition to Smith, other area coaches in the top 100 were Ralph Ball of Princeton; Jennings Boyd of Northfork, who finished his coaching career at Bluefield; and Don Nuckels and Lewis D’Antoni of Mullens, the father of Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni.
It was a good season throughout the region and here’s to a great offseason.
Bob Redd is a Daily Telegraph sportswriter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org