The first quarter had not yet ended and already the Logan Wildcats owned a 34-6 lead on the Washington Irving Hilltoppers of Clarksburg. It raised the prospect of a dull, lopsided Class AAA championship basketball game at the Charleston Civic Center on Saturday night, March 26, 1977.
The Wildcats were running their customary fast break, a proud Logan tradition, and were doing so precisely as their coach, Willie Akers, had taught them in those meticulous practice sessions at the Logan Memorial Fieldhouse. More than ever, the Wildcats were living up to their highfalutin nickname, “Willie’s Wild, Wonderful Wildcats,’’ a nice piece of alliteration in keeping with the state’s “Wild, Wonderful’’ promotional theme.
A capacity crowd of 7,200 lifted the tourney’s four-day attendance to 52,480 — impressive but slightly short of the record, said Civic Center manager Frank Burdette.
Mixing layups off the break with Vic Herbert’s outside shooting and Kevin McCallister’s dunks, the Wildcats hit an astonishing 18 of 24 first-quarter shots (75 percent) and led 39-11 after the first eight minutes. By early in the second quarter, Herbert had scored 23 points on 10-of-11 shooting and was living up to Akers’ recent declaration that he was the best shooter Akers had ever coached in 16 years on the job.
On one occasion, Herbert scored five points in five seconds. After scoring a layup, he turned and took a step down the floor as if to play defense but quickly turned again and stole WI’s inbounds pass. He laid it in, drew a foul and hit the free throw.
“I thought they were never gonna miss,’’ WI’s Jeff Schneider said afterward. The 6-foot-3 junior, who won the Bill Evans Award as the state’s top player that year, scored 35 points on 15-of-44 shooting and totaled 114 points in the three tournament games.
Herbert, meanwhile, encountered foul problems and, after scoring the 23 early points, didn’t score again.
The deafening Wildcat fans, another proud Logan tradition, were making Civic Center conversations all but impossible and contributing to their team’s energy. “That kept you going at a little higher speed than normal,’’ the Wildcats’ Scott Ellis said recently. Ellis, a sophomore, replaced the foul-plagued Herbert and contributed 11 points off the bench.
Logan, a town of 3,100 residents back then, surely set a state tournament record for per capita attendance. The school had been allotted only 1,600 tickets, said Logan athletic director Jim Willis, but he estimated that 4,000 Wildcat fans had somehow found their way into the building. On the play-by-play sheet distributed to the media, a note read: “Will the last person to leave Logan please turn out the lights.’’
After the game, when someone asked Akers about the first quarter, he replied, “It was out of this world.’’ Added Mike Stone, Logan’s junior guard: “There’s nothing better than to run the break like we had it going today. It was beautiful.’’
More than four decades later, Stone still remembers the fast-break formula: “Rebound the ball, outlet the pass to the wing, throw it to the middle, fill the lanes.’’
Herbert also looked back and offered perspective on the 1977 Logan-Washington Irving classic. “I don’t know how many times old-timers have told me it was the best high school tournament game they ever saw,’’ said Herbert, who later coached at Logan and South Charleston. “Everybody over a certain age will remember that.’’
Despite Logan’s strong start, the Hilltoppers, helped by Schneider’s scoring and Herbert’s foul problems, nearly pulled off a miracle. In the second quarter, they answered with an amazing 39 points of their own and, relentlessly, began chipping away at the Logan lead. “To tell you the truth,’’ Akers admitted afterward, “I don’t think there was much defense.’’
Schneider was burning the Logan zone, especially in the second quarter. “He was shooting NBA 3s out there,’’ Stone said recently. “You thought he was out of his range and that he was not gonna pull the trigger. And next thing you know, he’s letting one fly from 25 feet, and it was going in. He got hot in the second quarter.’’
By halftime, the lead was down to 61-46, and with 5:30 left in the game, the Wildcats clung to a mere 80-74 advantage. The Wildcats, however, composed themselves, rebuilt the lead to 90-76 and defeated the Hilltoppers 111-87 for the championship in an era when the 3-point shot was still a decade away.
“Who knows what the score would have been if the 3-point rule had been in effect,’’ Herbert speculated.
The 111 points far surpassed the previous tournament record of 87, set by Dunbar in 1961. And the combined 198 points set another tourney record, breaking the Kermit-Barrackville mark of 182 in 1964. Both records still stand.
Incidentally, Willie’s Wild, Wonderful Wildcats shot 63.5 percent (47 for 74) for the game. “Can you believe that game?’’ Akers asked reporters.
After the game, as the players celebrated inside the locker room, Akers talked with the media just outside. During the interview, a player suddenly appeared and told the coach that Herbert had injured his leg. Akers then hurried inside — and was ambushed.
The players grabbed him and threw him in the showers, along with assistant coaches Alan Hatcher and Jack Stone, for a celebratory drenching — an early version of the Gatorade shower.
And all along, it seemed, good karma was at work for the Wildcats. Three days before the Logan-WI game, Los Angeles Lakers coach Jerry West, a longtime Akers friend and the state’s basketball nonpareil, came to town to visit his mother and made a Civic Center appearance.
Arriving late in the Wildcats’ 69-51 quarterfinal victory over Lewis County, West sat on the Logan bench for the final few minutes, boding well for Willie’s Wild, Wonderful Wildcats.
On that same night, West chatted with St. Albans coach Tex Williams, another old friend, in the dressing room after the undefeated Red Dragons had edged Bluefield 69-67 in the quarterfinals. West briefly addressed the players and started to leave, but the Red Dragons’ Danny Blackhurst spoke up and said, “Wait a minute! I want to shake your hand.’’ West, of course, obliged.
Blackhurst’s teammates then teased him, saying he’d never wash that hand again.
Two nights later, after the Wildcats had eliminated the Red Dragons 80-66 in the semifinals, Williams visited the Logan dressing room to offer congratulations. “You guys gave us a real whipping,’’ he told them. “And that hasn’t happened in a long time. I wish you the best.’’
Two hours before tipoff, the 3,000-seat Logan Memorial Fieldhouse was full. It was March 19, 1977, and Logan was preparing to play Huntington for the Region 8 championship and a berth in the state tournament in Charleston. The Pony Express loomed as the favorite, having beaten the Wildcats twice during the regular season.
“I got to the game at 5:30 for the 7:30 game,’’ Stone recalled, “and the fieldhouse was already packed. There was not a seat to be had.’’
To help accommodate the overflow crowd, workers had moved the baseball bleachers into the fieldhouse and set them up on the stage. “There were probably 5,000 people there,’’ said Stone, a salesman and partner for Dan and Dave’s Sporting Goods in Logan. “If you took one step out of bounds, you’d probably hit somebody.’’
Herbert remembers similar crowds at the fieldhouse. “I’ve been in there when there was way over 4,000, standing room only,’’ he recalled. “The fire marshal would come in there and get on everybody.’’
In the pregame player introductions before the Huntington game, the public-address announcer intoned the words: “And now introducing your Logan Wildcats.’’ It precipitated such a frightful din that the PA man’s subsequent words were totally inaudible. By now, the crowd was on its feet, producing a decibel level that Herbert said made his ears hurt.
Because individual player introductions were impossible, Akers simply shoved his players onto the floor. “Then the place really roared,’’ Stone said.
The fans were so loud the players didn’t always hear the referee’s whistle. Early in the game, Huntington’s Mike Price drove the baseline and dunked but, in doing so, stepped out of bounds, prompting the referee’s whistle.
But amid the noise, nobody heard it, and the Wildcats inbounded the ball and hurried down the floor. The persistent official, however, continued blowing his whistle and waving his arms and aggressively positioned himself in the middle of the action, finally bringing the game to a halt. He then signaled that Price had stepped out of bounds, waving off the basket and setting off additional clamor.
The Wildcats won 71-63, and most of the fans remained in the fieldhouse afterward, savoring the victory and catching up with friends and neighbors. After all, Logan basketball is as much a social event as an athletic competition.
“In a small community like Logan, that was the main form of entertainment,’’ said Stone. “We didn’t have a lot of other things to do. Everybody went to the basketball games. That was the social thing to do.’’
Indeed, reveling in the Wildcats’ basketball success brought a special satisfaction. It was the townspeople’s way of deflecting the condescension they occasionally felt from outsiders.
“Logan has always had a reputation of being a rough-tough place where you could get shot in bars and different things,’’ Stone said recently. “And back in the day, you had coal mine strikes, and a lot of people probably looked down on us as a society. There was a negative image. But basketball was the one thing that probably brought pride and brought the town together. It was something they could be proud of. We had a winning tradition. Coach Akers had developed that.’’
Later, as a student and four-year starter at Fairmont State College, Stone would sometimes mention his Logan roots and, naturally, a basketball conversation would ensue.
Herbert spent much of his youth in Columbus, Ohio, and began his high school basketball career at the city’s Westland High, which played a slow, deliberate half-court offense that he found eminently unappealing. His parents, fortunately, were from southern West Virginia, and he would often accompany them on visits to his grandparents in Logan.
Once, during Christmas break, he watched the Wildcats practice at the fieldhouse and was smitten. He already knew of Akers’ fast-break style and, after seeing it in person, knew he wanted to be a Wildcat. And besides, the deafening fieldhouse atmosphere added to the allure.
He convinced his parents to approve a transfer and, without any Akers recruitment, enrolled at Logan High for his senior year and lived with his mother. It paid off not only in a state championship and all-state honors but in a four-year basketball career in Morgantown as a Mountaineer. WVU coach Joedy Gardner recruited him as a “Bobby Huggins big guard.’’
More than anything at Logan, he got an Akers fast-break basketball education. “I’ve never seen anybody who could get his kids to do what he wanted them to as far as the fast break goes,’’ said Herbert. “Coach Akers’ system was not a complicated system. It was a player’s system. He was a player’s coach. He was a guy that everybody loved to play for because he believed the game should be played at a fast pace and let the players decide the game with their ability rather than trying to decide it as a coach. He was committed to developing relationships with his kids.’’
“Willie made you believe you were gonna win every game. And we liked him,’’ said Ellis, a salesman and partner at Dan and Dave’s Sporting Goods. “He was tough, but he was good to us. And he was one of those kind of guys that you would play really hard for because you liked him.’’
Akers coached the Wildcats for 25 years, winning four state championships and reaching the title game on four other occasions, and he still keeps busy as a Logan County commissioner. He not only won and coached an entertaining style but earned a reputation for his colorful antics.
“He was very, very animated on the sideline,’’ said Herbert. “Some people would come just to see some of the goofy stuff that he would do.’’
In fits of anger, he broke countless clipboards over his knee and on the floor. Once, at halftime in a cramped locker room at Madison, an irate Akers began ripping the Wildcats for their terrible first half, grabbed a basketball and fired it aimlessly. It bounced off a urinal, came back and hit him in the head. “We were all too scared to laugh,’’ said Herbert. “But he started laughing, and then we all started laughing.’’
The fast break is not as common now as it once was, said Herbert, noting that Woodrow Wilson coach Dave Barksdale, like Akers, once coached an effective running game that produced state championships. Many of today’s coaches, Herbert speculated, tend to overcoach.
“My main guess is that coaches now try to control things more than they used to in the past,’’ he said. “And to be quite honest with you, the Dave Barksdales and Willie Akers of the past probably taught it a lot better than the coaches nowadays. Those guys were real fast-break guys, and they spent a ton of time on it in practice. Where nowadays, people try to figure out the game more than it needs to be figured out. It’s a pretty simple game: If you can beat the other team down the court and have the numbers, that’s probably a pretty smart thing to do.
“He was an old-time coach; he’d rip you in two if you got out of line. But we all respected that. He would jump on you if he thought you needed it. But then he’d put his arm around you and tell you what a good job you did. He had a certain way about him where everybody wanted to play their guts out for him. That’s a thing you don’t see a lot nowadays.’’
After their championship victory on March 26, 1977, the Wildcats spent the night in Charleston and began their return home by car the next day. When word reached Logan that the team was on its way, hundreds of fans drove out to the Logan-Boone county line to greet them. There, about 150 cars joined the Wildcats to form a motorcade for the final miles along U.S. 119 into Logan.
As the motorcade entered Logan County, residents stood in their lawns, cheering and applauding.
Upon the Wildcats’ arrival at the fieldhouse, another 1,000 folks greeted them, and everyone moved inside for a big victory ceremony. Akers spoke, his Wild, Wonderful Wildcats spoke, townspeople spoke. And everybody had a good time.