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Coach, team recall SHS 1970 sensation

By Staff | Jul 9, 2010

Coach Jimmy Kessel looks over relics from Shepherds-town High School’s 1970 baseball season, in which the single-A school won the state title over much larger schools. The team’s practice bat and a ball signed by all the members are among Kessel’s collection. Chronicle photo by Daniel Friend

It’s June 1970. Shepherdstown High School baseball coach Jimmy Kessel stops by the front desk at the Chancellor Hotel in Parkersburg, where his team is staying, to pick up another Western Union telegram.

“We’re backing you up all the way!” this one reads. It’s from the student body of Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County, wishing the Cardinals good luck in the State High School Baseball Championship finals.

Kessel, 74, has a stack of such telegrams in a scrapbook filled with news clippings, score cards, photographs and other memories from that sensational season 40 years ago. On the same day, the Cardinals defeat Morgantown’s University High 7-0 and mighty Poca 4-1 in the finals to capture the crown.

“It was a good experience for the kids and something I’ll never forget,” Kessel says during an interview on his back porch.

Baseball is wide open in West Virginia in 1970. As with a few other sports, there is no school class division. Shepherdstown High School (what is now the Middle School), is single-A.

Members of the 1970 Shepherdstown High School baseball team, kneeling (from left) Billy Custer, Jimmy Ingram, D. L. Smith, Gary Thomas, Ronnie Stotler and Gary Walsh. Back row (from left): Coach Jimmy Kessel, Mike Hockman, Larry Thomas, Jeff Sager,?David Smith, Bruce Clinton, Craig Thompson, Jerry Mahoney, team manager D. Frank Hill III, and Gary Sager.

“I think that’s the special story, right there,” says former Cardinal pitcher Jerry Mahoney, 55, during a telephone interview from his home in Morgantown. “It’s kind of like the Hoosiers. It’s a special thing I was lucky enough to be a part of.” Mahoney is just 15 at the time of the Cardinals blazing streak, a freshman starting pitcher.

The week the Cardinals head out for the state finals, driving U.S. 50 across the Mountain State, Ray Stevens is in the number-one slot on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Everything is Beautiful.” And it really is. Our boys can’t be stopped.

“Just because we were a small school, I don’t think it fazed (us),” Mahoney recalls. “If you do the right things, and you have a group of kids that want to be a team and play, you can accomplish great things.”

Shepherdstown attorney D. Frank Hill III, 58, agrees with Mahoney.

“There were no hot dogs,” Hill says over lunch at Tony’s Pizza on German Street. “There were no real stars. You had a group of people . . . who truly played as a team, a unified effort. Each person was integrally necessary. There was no weak position.”

A display of the hats worn by the team members during their 1970 season still hangs in the gymnasium at Shepherdstown Middle School (which was the high school in 1970). The entire season’s scores and each member’s position are shown. Team manager D. Frank Hill III’s hat in the bottom row is the only camouflage hunter’s hat in the line-up. The hats hang just below the gym’s emergency light, which remains illuminated 24 hours a day. Whether the display was placed in that location as a matter of convenience or design isn’t known. Either way, the light shines on the 1970 champs.

In his senior year, Hill is a go-to guy for the entire school. He arrives early in the morning to fill vending machines, sells tickets to ball games, does whatever the principal Principal James D. Lannan and Coach Kessel need to have done.

“I had a truck and dragged the baseball field,” Hill, recalls, noting that Willy’s probably didn’t hurt his grade in Kessel’s Biology class.

The team hasn’t had an official manager all year, but Hill manages to talk Lannan into letting him have the job, if Kessel agrees.

It’s a go.

“Lannan gave me $400 in cash and said ‘Frank, you take care of this,'” Hill, now 58, laughs. He handles the meals and other expenses when the team heads out for Parkersburg.

One of the more remarkable feats for the Cardinals is it success with freshman Mahoney. But Kessel has to get him some rest, so before the final game, he puts catcher Larry Thomas of Kearneysville at home plate against Morgantown’s University High.

“Junior Larry Thomas and Freshman Jerry Mahoney turned in brilliant pitching performances for Coach Jim Kessel in yesterday’s double triumphs,” The Martinsburg Journal reports on June 6. “Thomas, making only his second start of the season, hurled a one-hitter, struck out six and walked five in the win over University while Mahoney throttled powerful Poca . . .”

Hill remembers Thomas really rises to the occasion.

“Had it not been for him, we never would have won that Championship,” Hills says. He gives Kessel credit, though, for bringing these boys, from a school of about 350 kids, to their greatest potential.

“He was an excellent disciplinarian,” Hill says. “And people wanted to please him. He had high expectations of people, and they performed to the level that he expected. I did whatever Kessel told me. I just thought the world of the man, still do.”

Hill recalls there is never a discipline problem with the team. Kessel keeps them in line, and never with yelling or cursing. One of the phrases the boys hear a lot is “Listen, you jokers!” Hill laughs.

Kessel coached baseball for 10 years and has coached football since 1962, having taken a few years off after his mid-1990s retirement from Jefferson High School. Recently, he was called back to the field to coach at the new Washington High School. He’s now in his third year as offensive coordinator, and has no plans to stop coaching.

“I plan on staying in it until we get a winning team,” Kessel says. “I want to win.”

Mahoney hasn’t stopped playing ball, either. He has been in athletics for some 33 years. At West Virginia University, where would continue his baseball success in 1976-77, he is now helping run facilities and operations. He gets back to Jefferson County occasionally. His Mom still lives in Kearneysville. The American Legion team he coaches has won three state championships and as of Wednesday had a record of 20-8.

“I’ve still got a great arm,” Mahoney says. “That’s probably the only part of me that works real well.”

Kessel says if had his 1970 team, they’d still be champions. Many of the other team members are still in the area. The 1970 roster includes: Jerry Mahoney, Gary Walsh, Ronnie Stotler, Jim Ingram, Gary Thomas, D. L. Smith, Larry Thomas, Billy Custer, Mike Hockman, David Smith, Bruce Clinton, Jeff Sager, Gary Sager, Craig Thompson and team manager D. Frank Hill III.

“Today, I think we could stick up with most teams around,” Kessel says, conceding that with many more games played in a season he might have to have more than one pitcher.

The team returns to Shepherdstown with Shepherdstown Fire Department’s only engine leading the last leg of the journey from Berkeley Plaza in Martinburg to Shepherdstown. The school band is playing at the German and Duke four-way stop.

The boys are treated to a steak dinner at the Men’s Club downtown and many more interviews and photos for the local papers, and a special school assembly the following week, Hill recalls. Shepherdstown businessman and government leader Silas F. Starry later would bus the whole team to Washington for dinner and a Senators game, Hill says.

“There were literally hundreds of people in town that day when we came back,” Hill says. “Two days after . . . we graduated from high school.”