Van Meter and Wiseman were spiritual leaders in Beckley’s many successes
SHEPHERDSTOWN — With longer days and high school basketball moving closer to “tournament time,” some seasons and games from the past haven’t lost their gilt-edged places in the state’s library of memories.
The school with the most basketball state championships is Woodrow Wilson of Beckley. No fewer than 16 state titles have been taken by the “Flying Eagles” of Woodrow.
When Coach Jerome Van Meter was already a legend in the coalfields, the city of Beckley not so innocently called itself “The City of Champions.”
Van Meter was not a man to toot his own horn, so the school’s fans and the city’s residents did it themselves. Van Meter was nicknamed “The Grey Eagle,” and during one glory-filled era his teams won five state titles in a nine-year period.
Those still living in the Raleigh County coal fields and those who willingly listened to their tales of Beckley basketball have not forgotten the consecutive state championships won by Van Meter’s teams in 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954. “Four straight. Ain’t that great!” thought Beckley followers. Back the Flying Eagles came, with Van Meter as their banner carrier, to win again in 1957.
The Beckley newspaper began to call its favorite sons “The Van Metermen.”
Van Meter left his exalted place in city lore and was replaced by Lawrence “Preach” Wiseman.
Wiseman became almost as revered as Van Meter had been. His first state title came in 1962, a year when high school basketball in the state clamped onto the emotions of people like no other.
Woodrow Wilson was undefeated when it faced equally unbeaten Weirton in the state tournament finals. Ron “Fritz” Williams and Weirton had a 64-49 lead with 7:03 left to play, when Woodrow brought out a fullcourt press.
The gym became a din of noise, as the Flying Eagles flew after the Red Riders. Weirton’s lead melted. Woodrow’s full-throttle defense literally saved the unbeaten season and was rewarded with a state championship — “Preach’s” first.
Later, in both 1965 and 1967, the Flying Eagles were crowned again.
The spacious Raleigh County Armory had opened in 1962 and saw few empty seats among its more than 2,000 available, when Wiseman and the Flying Eagles showed their fastbreak style of get-up-the-court basketball.
A drought of 23 years without a state championship made dusty the sign that read “The City of Champions.” And then demonstrative Dave Barksdale, once a player on the state championship team of 1962, took over as coach.
Barksdale liked to press. And he liked to run. And the city was charmed by his combative style during games and his five state titles during the 1990s.
Barksdale would coach for 17 seasons, winning 335 games before stepping down after the 1999 season to go to Aiken, South Carolina to coach. His first title came in 1990 with a win over Martinsburg, finally ending the 23-year drought.
It was Ron Kidd who replaced the inimitable Barksdale. Kidd captured state championships in both 2004 and 2008.
The Beckley Flying Eagles have not been crowned the state champions since 2008, but Woodrow Wilson still has 16 championships, the most of any school in the state.
“The Grey Eagle” started the legacy. “Preach” came along with his quiet style and winning ways. Then came the fiery Barksdale and his no-nonsense approach. And, finally, Kidd secured the last two tiles.
Coal — once the black gold of the state — and Flying Eagle basketball fueled the imaginations of citizens of Raleigh County and the state when the public had its hand on the pulse of high school basketball in the Mountain State.