‘From there to here’
The100th Anniversary of the State Boys Basketball Tournament was celebrated last week in Charleston with a banquet, player recognition event and more. The celebration surely rekindled memories and nostalgia among players and coaches who were talented enough to find themselves on the hardwood as finalists in the sport.
All-State Tournament Team players Harry McCloud and Teddy Dunbrack, of Marlinton, were in Charleston on Thursday to take their place among players from several decades. The third player selected for the All-State Team honor, fellow athlete Ivan “Pete” Withers, was under the weather and could not make the trip that day.
The 1968 Marlinton High School Copperheads, playing under Coach Elmer Friel, had only one week of practice before heading into its first basketball game of that season. The team had been busy through the fall winning every football game and coming out on top as the State Class A Football Champions.
Going from one sport to the next, a newspaper headline at that time read, “Cleats for Sneakers – Transition is Made by Marlinton Team.”
Adding to the challenge of the “transition” was the fact that the team’s home games that year were played at Hillsboro High School. A fire in the fall of 1967 made the balcony seating area over the Marlinton gymnasium floor unsafe for the fans.
But despite the drawbacks, the Copperheads nearly took it all that school year. Going into the state tournament with a 24-3 record, and an average 80 points per game, they won the first round of the state tournament against Fort Ashby, but lost in the final game to Barracksville by a none-too-shabby score of 58 - 68.
Still, they came out as Class A State Runners-Up that year in basketball.
“We were just a bunch of farm boys,” McCloud said. “It’s hard to believe – football and basketball – you could take one team, take them off of one [sport] and put them in another, and they could take it so far.”
They took it far, and left several records in their wake.
Dunbrack set a record for assists at the 1968 tournament, a record that stood for 21 years, before it was broken in 1989.
How was Dunbrack able to set such a record?
Friel said that question was asked of Dunbrack while in Charleston, and Dunbrack replied, “Coach has been on my [rear-end] since seventh grade, teaching me how to get the ball.”
Much of the team’s success can be traced to the fact that they had all played football and basketball together from seventh grade through high school.
“We knew each other’s actions,” Dunbrack said. “You can’t play the game five straight years and not know what they’re going to do. You know their actions. You threw the ball and always knew they were going to be there.”
That kind of teamwork paid off big-time in one game.
“We played White Sulphur that year,” said McCloud. “We had never gone there and won. They had not been beat on their floor in eight years.”
Friel laughed as he told of an incident leading into the game when someone made a comment to then Marlinton Junior High coach Bob Welder that “those boys can play football but how are they going to be in basketball?” Friel remembers Welder’s reply - “If you’re going to beat them, you’d better beat them tonight.”
It was four foul shots by Withers at the end of the game against White Sulphur that put the score at 87 – 84, making for the Copperhead’s third win of that memorable season.
Some folks said the Copperheads ran the fast-break like they invented it, Friel recalled. But the players will tell you that it was Friel’s teaching of basics and fundamentals that put the team on a winning path.
There was another trick that got the team in shape, as well.
“Jimmie Irvine wasn’t playing basketball when he was in the eighth grade,” Friel said. “I remember seeing him play on the paved area that Gene Simmons had paved out there. That’s where I started watching him. We had old wooden bank boards in the gym. When they took them out and replaced them with metal ones, I gave one to Jimmie. He took it home and put it up on a tree. He practiced, and he became a basketball player.”
Withers remembers that one of the other bank boards made its way to his neighborhood where it was put to good use by the boys.
That practice paid off and took the boys to Charleston.
“I was like the rest of them,” Withers said laughing. “I had never been to Charleston. We looked forward to it - or maybe not - with all the stuff we had heard about it.”
One thing the boys had heard about was the Daniel Boone Hotel, which was then top-notch in the state, Withers said. But it didn’t turn out to be top-notch for the team.
“It was a curse that we stayed at the Daniel Boone,” Withers said. “When we won the first game, the ones that got beat – well, it was over for them, and they partied.”
Partied all night making it nearly impossible for the Marlinton team to get any rest.
Added to a sleepless night, Withers had also sprained his ankle at the end of that first game.
“No one carried much money with them, and no one had insurance back then,” he said. “A doctor at Institute or somewhere offered to x-ray my ankle for nothing.”
The x-ray was free but the trip to the doctor cost Withers in another way.
He wanted to watch the other games.
“Charleston was undefeated,” he said. “They had one of the greatest teams, but I didn’t get to see any games.”
As for the Copperheads’ appearance there, Withers said, “We were lucky that year. We had good athletes. We never lost a beat when someone came off the bench. It was not just five players. They were all good.”
But looking back, it was not the game that comes to the forefront of Wither’s memory. It was the fans.
“I don’t think any team had any more support than we did,” he said. I remember that more that the game.”
The three All-State Tournament Team players refer to Friel as more than a coach. He was like a second dad, they said.
“It was a pleasure to play for a coach like Elmer,” Withers said.
McCloud referred to the skills learned from such a coach.
“Elmer taught you the fundamentals,” he said. “When you learned the fundamentals, you got the base of it. Just like building a house – you need a good foundation.”
The players still have a lot of respect for the coach that “took them so far.”
“He was a good coach,” Dunbrack said. “He got strict if you got out of line, but he didn’t correct you or demean you in front of your peers. He would take you aside and talk to you. He was a one-on-one coach. And players were dedicated then. We didn’t have any activity bus. We had to find our own way home, do our chores – bring in the wood – then do our homework.”
Johhny Totten and Brett Withers, of Marlinton, traveled to Thursday’s event in Charleston with their friends McCloud and Dunbrack. After the recognition ceremony, the former players sat in the bleachers to watch the game.
“We were sitting in the bleachers with the students,” McCloud said. “They were squalling and stomping their feet. The whole floor was shaking. Johnny looked over at me and said ‘they [students] don’t realize how soon it is from there – to here.”’
McCloud laughed as he told about it, and was amazed at how long it had been since the Copperheads took to that floor.
How soon was it from there – to here?
“It was forty-five years ago,” McCloud said.
Jaynell Graham may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org