There are times when the hard reality of life overshadows the wins and losses of high school athletics. For two local schools, losses of teenage classmates in 2019 were felt deeply and sports teams dedicated their efforts to their memory.
The devotion of Bluefield High School to “Li’l Tony” Webster and the recognition of Lindsey Varney’s spirit by Princeton Senior High School combined for indelible memories and became the top sports story of the year, as determined by a panel of Daily Telegraph editors and writers.
The power of this narrative won out over significant stories of state championships, winning streaks, the comings and goings of coaches and facilities changeovers. A remarkable 12 months contained enough noteworthy storylines to make our annual list a difficult task to compile.
1. Deaths in the Family
Anthony Alexander “Li’l Tony” Webster III would have been a senior at Bluefield High School this year, but he died at age 17 last January 16 after developing an aneurysm in his brain which caused him to collapse during a weightlifting session.
Webster was a running back and linebacker for the Beavers football team, participating on the 2018 state championship team. He also won awards in weightlifting and played basketball. But he was more than an athlete: He was a modest leader and friend to many.
“Tony was a student that everybody in our school loved and respected,” said Bluefield High School principal Michael Collins.
His loss was felt deeply by the BHS sports teams, especially the ones that Webster’s father Tony served as an assistant coach. “Li’l Tony’s” jersey number, 5, was worn in each football and boys basketball game by Bluefield players chosen by the coaches on a game-by-game basis. It was announced that the number will be retired from use by BHS football players.
A bell on the home sideline at Mitchell Stadium was erected in Webster’s memory. West Virginia Governor Jim Justice dedicated it before the Beaver-Graham game on August 30. The bell was rung after every score by Bluefield.
That evening, Webster’s mother Sharon Webster praised the support and love of the local communities from both sides of the state line. “My son’s name will be forever remembered, and never forgotten,” she said.
Lindsey Ann Varney was also 17 years old when she died on March 3, ending a battle against a brain disease known as DIPG that lasted nearly 32 months. She was a senior at Princeton Senior High.
Many of the students and adults who were inspired by her courage adopted the hashtag #LiveforLindsey and continue to use #LindseyStrong.
At least 400 people attended a vigil at the soccer stadium on March 9, said event organizer Bridget Hudgins. PSHS student-atheltes formed a giant heart shape on the field, she said.
Hudgins, once Varney’s cheerleader coach, said that Varney was an inspiration to the community. She continued to attend school events and ballgames while battling her disease.
“She stayed so strong and never showed any kind of fear,” Hudgins said.
A nonprofit organization, the Lindsey Ann Varney Foundation, has been set up to help families of kids diagnosed with DIPG, according to her mother Lori.
2. Out at home? Local minor league baseball teams face threat
Word spread quickly in mid-October that the Bluefield Blue Jays and Princeton Rays, the region’s minor league baseball teams, were on a list of 42 franchises that would be eliminated after the 2020 season if a proposal from Major League Baseball (MLB) were to be adopted.
Minor League Baseball and the MLB are in discussions to craft a new “Professional Baseball Agreement.”
There has been a minor league team in Bluefield for more than 70 years and Princeton first got a team in 1988. Both play in the Appalachian League, a rookie-level circuit that dates its beginnings to 1911.
More than 75 major leaguers got their professional start at Princeton’s Hunnicutt Field.
Bowen Field has been the starting point for several all-time greats, including former Bluefield Orioles Cal Ripken Jr. and Boog Powell. More recently, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. quickly climbed the ladder of the Toronto Blue Jays organization from Bluefield, debuting in the majors this year.
If the minor league teams cease to exist, the towns will have the option to participate in a ‘Dream League’ where all the clubs will be composed of players who were not drafted or are free agents.
The main difference would be that all costs would be paid by the local team instead of the MLB club which currently pays the salaries of the players and coaches it sends to affiliates along with other expenses.
Local and state officeholders representing Mercer County sprang to oppose the MLB proposal. A bipartisan group known as Save Minor League Baseball Task Force was recently announced by several members of Congress.
Dewey Russell, president of the Princeton Baseball Association, said, “What is disturbing to me is they forget about the importance of a minor league team to communities like Princeton, Bluefield, Bristol and Danville.”
Jim Spencer, community and economic development director for Bluefield, said, “It’s not just about the city but the region.”
Rocky Malamisura, general manager of the Bluefield Blue Jays, said, “We appreciate the support of … the members of the task force in standing up for Minor League Baseball and speaking out against MLB’s effort to cast of thousands of jobs, reduce affordable, family-friendly entertainment and undermine grassroots support for our great game.”
3. Dark autumn in Bastian
The football field of the Bland County Bears remained quiet and dark this fall. The 2019 season for the Bland County High School team was canceled on August 8 due to lack of turnout to join the squad.
That morning, a Facebook post urged students to come to that day’s practice “if you plan to play we are down in numbers.”
Participation in high school football has declined at many schools nationwide. At a small school such as the one serving Bland County, that problem can become acute.
Head coach Harris Hart was preparing to start his 15th season as the Bears’ head coach. The school’s athletic director, Tyler Eastep, expressed his support for Hart in comments to a media outlet. “We’re extremely lucky to have him,” Eastep said.
4. Lady Blues win state softball title
The Richlands Lady Blues softball team, in its third consecutive trip to the state championship game, won the Virginia Class 2 title on June 14 in Radford. Richlands capped off its season with a 1-0 win over Madison County to capture the elusive crown.
Lauren Earls scored the game’s only run, which proved to be enough due to the Blues’ overpowering pitching and defense. Richlands’ ace pitcher, Mac Osborne, struck out 16 batters, allowing just one hit and one base on balls.
During the season, Osborne threw two no-hitters in a five-day span. She compiled a 22-3 record last spring, recording 316 strikeouts, and was named the Virginia 2A state softball player of the year – for the second consecutive year. In three varsity seasons, she has 59 pitching wins. In November, Osborne committed to play softball collegiately for Virginia Tech.
The Class 2 all-state first team, announced by the Virginia High School League, included Osborne, Kaitlyn Baldwin at second base, Chloe Newberry in the outfield, and RHS head coach Ronnie Davis as coach of the year.
Richlands captured its first state softball crown since 1996.
5. Graham brothers bring home wrestling titles
Thanks to a pair of brothers, Graham High School has two state wrestling champions in the same season for the first time in school history. Justin and Caleb Fritz picked up the honors at the state wrestling meet on Feb. 16 at the Salem Civic Center.
Justin took the championship in the 145-pound division of Class 2A with a pin of his opponent in a time of 1:34. It was his second straight year to win the top spot at states. Caleb, a senior wrestling at 132 pounds, authored a 2-0 decision in the finals.
Justin told Daily Telegraph correspondent Lloyd Combs, “It was amazing to be out there and even have a chance to win it, but it was better with my brother out there, winning it before me.”
Graham’s Keith Carbaugh placed fourth in the 170-pound division. Graham’s team score was seventh among Class 2 schools wrestling at the state meet.
The G-Men concluded their first season with their new head coach, former assistant Ben Fritz, who is the father of Justin and Caleb.
Grundy rolled to its record 22nd state team title at Salem, with six individual champions. Gabe Fiser, son of Grundy High School coach Travis Fiser, became a four-time state champ. The Golden Wave competed in Class 1.
6. Knights hold last game at old stadium
The Mount View Golden Knights football team brought down the curtain on their old football facility with their last home game on Oct. 18. Vic Nystrom Stadium, inaugurated in 1952, had been the home of Welch High School football prior to serving the past 41 years as home field for Mount View.
The stadium was named for a longtime McDowell County coach who led the Mount View program during its early years.
A new field with artificial turf, located beside the high school atop Tom’s Mountain, is expected to open next fall, according to county schools superintendent Carolyn Falin.
7. Concord hires new football coach
The winningest high school football coach in West Virginia’s history was hired this month to try to turn around the fortunes of Concord University football.
Dave Walker, an alumnus of Pineville High School in Wyoming County, was introduced by CU athletics director Kevin Garrett as the 20th head coach of the Mountain Lions football program in a press conference at the Carter Center in Athens.
Walker has more than 300 victories in 32 years as a head football coach in West Virginia high schools. Most of that has come at Martinsburg High, where he has won eight Class AAA state titles in the past 10 years. He leaves that program with a 56-game winning streak intact, the second longest active win streak in the nation.
He takes over for Paul Price, who resigned shortly after Concord went 1-10 in the 2019 season. In four years as head coach, Price’s record was 7-37. He was a key assistant to head coach Garin Justice when Concord went 13-1 in the 2014 season, reaching the NCAA Division II semifinals. The Mountain Lions have not had a winning season since.
Garrett said that Walker is “the winningest coach in the history of West Virginia, so we feel really blessed to get him to Concord.”
Walker said during his first press conference, “How do you change the culture? You win.”
8. Prep football success continues
Both Bluefield and Graham high schools followed up 2018 state football championships with playoff runs in 2019, while Narrows had its best football season in 40 years.
The Beavers launched the season by defeating the G-Men at Mitchell Stadium and won nine of their 10 regular-season games – losing only to Lord Botetourt in Virginia. Ranked fourth in the Class AA playoff field, Bluefield put together postseason wins of 48-16, 43-20 and 40-24 to reach the championship game in Wheeling for the third straight year. The Beavers lost to Bridgeport 21-14, ending the season with a 12-2 record.
Graham rebounded from its opening-game loss to win 11 of its next 12 games, averaging almost 43 points per contest. In the VHSL Class 2 playoffs, the G-Men reeled off victories by margins of 42-14, 48-7 and 43-14 to get to a semifinal matchup with eventual champion Appomattox County, where Graham’s campaign ended with a 28-13 loss and an overall mark of 11-3.
The Narrows Green Wave surged to its first 10-0 regular season in 40 years, running away with the Pioneer District championship. Narrows defeated Grayson County 35-7 in the first round of the Class 1 playoffs, but the winning streak ran out with a 56-28 loss in a Region C semifinal game at Ragsdale Field.
9. Bluefield College takes over Herb Sims Center
The city of Bluefield turned over the Herb Sims Center to Bluefield College on August 1. The private college signed a 10-year lease to use and manage the facility, located on Stadium Drive less than a mile from the BC campus.
Bluefield College President David Olive said the college will continue to involve Bluefield residents and offer the building for community events that do not conflict with the college’s schedule for the facility. Olive also said the popular youth basketball program will continue.
The college changed the name of the building to the Herb Sims Wellness Center. Sims was the Parks and Recreation Director for the city of Bluefield, who dedicated his career and life to enhancing the lives of many youth in the greater Bluefield area.
10. BSC returns to NCAA tennis nationals
For the eighth straight year, Bluefield State College competed in the NCAA Division II Men’s Tennis Championships in May in Altamonte Springs, Fla. The Big Blues entered the tourney ranked 19th nationally in the Division II list compiled by the International Tennis Association.
Bluefield State, again hosting the Atlantic Region tournament, pulled off a comeback to beat West Virginia Wesleyan 4-2 and claim the regional championship and its automatic bid into the nationals
The Big Blues lost 4-0 to Hawaii-Hilo in the first round of the tournament, finishing the season 15-10.
In Florida, Luke Busse of the Big Blues was presented an Elite 90 award by the NCAA, a recognition presented to the student-athlete with the highest grade-point average participating at each national finals site.
Busse had a 4.0 average.
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