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Vintage West Virginia: Wildcat Appreciation Day (copy)

After their Class AAA boys basketball title, members of Logan High School’s team rode in a parade for “Wildcat Appreciation Day” on March 30, 1978. Logan fans in the 1970s came up with some creative ways to find tickets to watch their team play in the state tournament.

Suddenly, some additional tickets for the Logan-Stonewall Jackson basketball game were available for purchase.

Hallelujah! It was an opportunity far too precious to pass up, even if it meant a 110-mile round trip from Logan to Charleston in those pre-Corridor G days.

On the morning of Thursday, March 23, 1978, the Gazette announced that tickets would go on sale at the Stonewall Jackson High School principal’s office at 10 a.m. that day. The game, a Class AAA semifinal in the state high school tournament, would be played the next night at the Charleston Civic Center.

A long line stretched out the principal’s office and down the hall that morning, catching the suspicious eye of Don Stover, the Stonewall basketball coach. Stover may have suspected that Logan fans, seemingly always in pursuit of a tournament tickets, might try to infiltrate enemy territory and gobble up tickets that might otherwise go to loyal Stonewall rooters.

And sure enough, he surveyed the line and spotted Logan folks. We can only speculate whether they were brazen enough to wear their Logan jackets in the Stonewall corridors on that chilly morning.

Stover then hurried over to the Stonewall employees handling the ticket sales and said, “Wait a minute! We’re selling tickets to Logan fans.’’ Whereupon, all subsequent sales had to be accompanied by proper identification. Anyone with a Logan address was summarily rejected.

All these years later, Larry “Speedy’’ Bevins still remembers that many Logan fans returned home empty-handed that day. “Some people came back and said, ‘They wouldn’t sell us any,’ ’’ recalled Bevins, who broadcast Logan Wildcat basketball on WVOW Radio from 1972 through 2015.

Even by West Virginia’s frenzied standards of 1970s high school basketball, the 1978 state tournament was a tough ticket, especially with the Logan Wildcats as the headliner. The tournament that year, in fact, set a record of 57,035 fans in four days, played in the 7,000-seat Civic Center. (The 13,500-seat Coliseum was still three years down the road.)

It was the era of coach Willie Akers’ Wild, Wonderful Wildcats and their entertaining fast-break style, giving rise to the community’s insatiable demand for state tournament tickets. Invariably, it seemed, demand far exceeded the school’s allotment. At the 1977 tournament, the Logan allotment was 1,600, but the school’s longtime athletic director, Jim Willis, estimated that 4,000 Wildcat fans had somehow acquired tickets for the championship game at the Civic Center.

Willis, who also coached Logan baseball, was a creative fellow and generally found a way to satisfy the community’s ticket needs. On opening night of the 1978 tournament in which Logan knocked off Washington Irving at the jam-packed Civic Center, Willis went to work. He knew that many of the WI fans had bought ticket books, giving them admission for the tourney’s four days, and that, in the immediate aftermath of their disappointing loss, they would be eager to sell them.

As the game was winding down in the Wildcats’ favor, Willis dispatched Wildcat Boosters Club members to the WI side of the Civic Center and, as the WI fans were leaving, the boosters shouted, “We’ll buy your books! We’ll buy your books!’’ They made a good haul and then sold the tickets to Wildcat fans at face value.

Willis had other methods. Throughout the years, he cultivated good relationships with the state’s high school principals and athletic directors and, at tournament time, would work the phones. If any school did not sell its ticket allotment, the Logan boosters would buy the leftovers and sell them to Logan fans — always at face value.

Logan’s fans were equally creative. On the final day of every state tournament, the Civic Center box office would offer tickets for the following year’s tourney, and many of the school’s fans bought in advance, fully confident that Willie’s Wild, Wonderful Wildcats would be there.

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At the Smokehouse Restaurant on Stratton Street in downtown Logan, Wildcat hoops conversations once filled the air, along with the aroma of rib roast, a house specialty. The hardcore regulars occupied a special table, and it filled up quickly, especially during breakfast and lunch hours.

“That’s where you went to talk basketball,’’ said Bevins.

Logan sits in the heart of what once was a world-renowned coalfield. Employment peaked in 1950, and the industry was still prospering when the Wildcats defeated Washington Irving, Stonewall Jackson and East Bank in the 1978 state tournament.

Downtown comprised six furniture stores, a variety of men’s and women’s clothing shops, three theaters, three restaurants, two radio stations and a five-days-a-week newspaper, as well as banks, car dealerships and mine repair shops. The Logan County population stood at 50,000 that year; it’s 32,000 now.

“It was the coal boom. Logan was a vibrant town,’’ said Bevins. “There was no Corridor G. Logan was a self-contained community, and the business community was very vibrant. It just was a bustling place.’’

“There was more retail business in this town than you can imagine,’’ recalled Dave McCormick, owner of McCormick Furniture, a downtown fixture since 1936.

Those thriving businesses, however, came to a halt when the Wildcats qualified for the state tournament, as they often did. “You might as well shut your doors,’’ said McCormick, 73, a lifelong Wildcat fan. “There was nobody here.’’

On the Monday morning after the 1978 championship, students and faculty filed out of the school and, led by the Wildcat band, paraded through downtown, exchanging waves with townspeople as they went.

Wildcat basketball games could be heard on the town’s two radio stations, WVOW and WLOG, and each station did its own broadcast with its own announcing crew, an arrangement that suggests unfriendly competition. Actually, the two stations co-existed quite amiably, knowing, of course, that advertisers were tripping over themselves in pursuit of precious air time during those lucrative broadcasts. Indeed, many wannabe advertisers were turned away.

When Beckley’s Woodrow Wilson High School, another coalfield basketball hotbed, visited Logan, it likewise brought two radio stations, WWNR and WJLS, thus endowing the game with four separate broadcasts. Could any other high school in the nation boast such a distinction?

Wildcat game broadcasts was so popular, in fact, that fans in McDowell, Raleigh, Cabell and Putnam counties would often tune in, eager to hear some exciting basketball in those pre-ESPN days, even though their teams weren’t involved.

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The Wildcats won the 1977 Class AAA title in the most frenetic and highest-scoring championship game in tournament history, and they did so in their customary fast-break style. It was a style that even the most indifferent fan found entertaining and, by the way, produced four state championships and four other championship-game appearances in Akers’ 25 seasons as coach.

Meanwhile, the school’s basketball following had picked up the distinction as the most passionate and most ear-splitting in the state. They sometimes squeezed 4,000 fans into their 2,500-seat fieldhouse, provided, of course, the fire marshal was nowhere on the premises.

For the 1978 regional final against Huntington High, 4,000 Wildcat fans were in attendance at the 6,500-seat Huntington Memorial Fieldhouse. For a game at Wheeling Park that year, about 500 made the 469-mile round trip through a snowstorm. The school sold 1,000 season tickets annually.

“One thing that helped us tremendously,’’ recalled Scott Ellis, a junior on the 1978 team, “was that anywhere we played — or most anywhere — we had more fans than the other team, even if it was on their home court. We had fans that traveled.’’

At away games, the Wildcats generally attracted a full house. “When we played on the road,’’ Bevins recalled, “it was the biggest crowds they had all year. People wanted to come and see Logan play.’’

For the Logan people, it was more than just winning games, and it was more than just enjoying the fast-paced precision and the postgame esprit de corps in the fieldhouse. Basketball success meant community pride, a means of countering an unwarranted reputation as a backward and unrefined hillside enclave.

“It brought a lot of respect to Logan,’’ said McCormick. “It gave the people something to point to, to stick their chests out a little bit. Logan is degraded over so many things that aren’t really true. I think it was a real sense of pride for folks. And you saw people of all walks of life who weren’t rabid sports fans. You just had to see the crowds. That’s what was amazing.’’

The crowd’s energy surely contributed to the Wildcat success, added Fred Persinger, a former Beckley radio play-by-play broadcaster who spent many nights in the Logan fieldhouse. “Those fans were unbelievable. They were wild, but they were courteous,’’ he remembered recently. “I know the players drew off of that. They could feel that. It kind of wills you forward.’’

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The Wildcats were not the only basketball newsmakers in March of 1978. It was a busy and eventful month.

The 31-year coaching career of Charleston High’s Lou Romano ended in a Region 6 game at Morris Harvey College’s Eddie King Gym. The Hurricane Redskins, coached by former CHS great Roger Hart, eliminated the Mountain Lions 70-68. Romano finished with 318 career victories.

In Morgantown, bumper stickers touted Fairmont State coach Joe Retton as the replacement for West Virginia’s Joedy Gardner. “Joe Retton for WVU Coach,’’ read the stickers. The school interviewed Retton but ultimately settled on Cincinnati coach Gale Catlett, a WVU alumnus. “I don’t have any plans to go anywhere at this point,’’ Catlett told the Cincinnati Enquirer on March 21. “I expect to be here.’’ A week later, he was the new Mountaineer coach.

In a Class AA first-round state tournament game at the Civic Center, a crowd of 6,500 turned out to see 6-foot-10 Earl Jones lead Mount Hope to a 54-30 victory over Williamstown. Northfork, however, moved relentlessly to its fifth straight Class AA title en route to a national record eight straight.

And the Wildcats caused Akers and their fans some needless worry in the Class AAA championship game. The East Bank Pioneers, having won 19 in a row, grabbed a quick 16-6 advantage, and the Wildcats looked ragged. “To be honest,’’ said Akers afterward, “I was very concerned. We got off to a slow start, and I thought we were in trouble.’’

But the Wildcats used a full-court pressure defense and their speed — “the quickest, fastest team I’ve ever had,’’ Akers said at the time — to rally for a 67-60 victory and a second straight state championship.

It prompted the celebratory parade through downtown two days later and gave Wildcat fans something else to talk about down at the Smokehouse. And, by the way, it’s never too early to start seeking out tickets for next season.

Paul Adkins is the Sports Editor of the Logan Banner. Follow him on Twitter at @PAdkinsBanner or email him at padkins@hdmediallc.com