High school sports in West Virginia went to the three-class system in the 1958-59 school year. Prior to that there was a period where all schools competed in one group, and then there was Class A and Class B.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the West Virginia boys state basketball tournament, first played in Buckhannon in 1913. For just over half of the tournament’s existence the three-class system has been in place and in that time in Class AA, the dominating part of the state has been southern West Virginia and what is now Region III.
Schools from what is now Region III, or their predecessors, have played in 37 of the 53 Class AA championships since 1959. They have won 23 state titles. The Bluefield Beavers were the 37th team to make it to the final game last season and the Beavers look this week to become the 38th team to make it to championship Saturday and the 24th to win a crown from the region.
The Northfork Blue Demons lay claim to 10 of those crowns. The late Jennings Boyd led the Demons to their first title in 1971 and then from 1974-1981 Northfork won a national record eight straight state championships. The Demons lost in the title game in 1983, but the next year, 1984 in the school’s final year of existence, they beat Wheeling Central for their 10th title, this one under the leadership of the late Henry Winkfield.
Other champions from the region are Oceana (1963, ‘65, ‘94), Mullens (1970, ‘72), and Gary (1973). Runners up were Oceana (1960), Gary District (1962), Mullens (1965), Pineville (1969) and Northfork (1983).
The dominance of the region was evident from the start of the three-class system. From 1960 to 1984 there were only five years that a team from the region did not play for the championship.
The landscape has changed and none of the old schools are open today. Oceana, Gary District, Mullens, Pineville, Northfork and Gary are all parts of consolidations. Oceana and Baileysville formed Westside in the 1990s. Gary District was integrated into Gary High in 1965-66, then Gary consolidated with Welch to form Mount View in 1978-79, which absorbed Northfork in 1984-85. Pineville and Mullens joined to form Wyoming East in the late 90s.
Enter the 1990s and there’s a new group of schools in Class AA in southern West Virginia. Bluefield and Oak Hill drop from Class AAA, Wyoming East and Westside open their doors, and the dominance continues.
After an eight-year hiatus from the Saturday afternoon game, Oceana made it to the final game in 1993. From 1993 to 2012, 20 championship games, the region has been represented 17 times. Championships were won eight of those years by Oceana (1994), Bluefield (1995-96), Wyoming East (2002, ‘07, 08) and Oak Hill (2010-11).
Oceana (1993), Bluefield (1997, ‘99, 2006, ‘12), Independence (2000), Oak Hill (2003), Westside (2005), and Wyoming East (2009, ‘10) all came up short in the title game.
Looking at the other two classes no other region has had such a dominance in state tournament play.
I had the pleasure of seeing many of the aforementioned teams play and a major tip of the hat goes to Northfork for what they accomplished. My cousin, John Jennings was on a couple of those teams in the mid-’70s.
Growing up in Gary, the ‘73 Coaldiggers still bring a smile to my face 40 years after they won the state championship led by Coach Ergie Smith and a starting five of John Billups, Paul Hamilton, Sterette Daniels, Eddie Joyce and Ricky Richardson.
However, the most memorable team for me was the 2006 Bluefield Beavers. They fell to Ravenswood in the championship game, but for three days in Charleston I stuck my chest out a little further as my son, Jonathan Payne carried on the tradition of Bluefield High School and this region at the state basketball tournament.
Bob Redd is a Daily Telegraph sportswriter. Contact him at bredd @bdtonline.com.