In January of 2012, while perusing the obituary section, a bombshell was laid in my lap. I was familiar with Harold Berkley “Pat” Umstot, as he was the great-grandfather of my nephew Brian Jewell, but was about to find out a tid-bit about him I didn't know.
By Chapin Jewell
In January of 2012, while perusing the obituary section of the Cumberland Times-News, a bombshell was laid in my lap. I was familiar with Harold Berkley “Pat” Umstot, as he was the great-grandfather of my nephew Brian Jewell, but was about to find out a tid-bit about him I didn’t know.
While reading his obituary, there it was, the lines that rocked my world, “Mr. Umstot was a 1947 graduate of Fort Ashby High School, where he played football.” What? “Pap Harold” as I knew him went to Fort Ashby High School, okay, but he played football?
As the proud grandson, son and nephew of Ridgeley High School graduates, I am well versed in all things Ridgeley Blackhawks, dating back to the 1940s. Because I had never heard it mentioned before, never, not once, I always just assumed that when Frankfort High School was created in 1976, all things football related for the Falcons traced their lineage to dear old Ridgeley High.
While that is certainly mostly true, who knew that 32 years prior to my birth, which also coincides with the founding of Frankfort High School, Fort Ashby High School fielded their first football team. That’s right, in 1944, 1945 and 1946, right smack at the end of World War 2 when you would think schools would be downsizing programs and not adding them, Fort Ashby High School fielded a football team.
It was decided officially and announced on Thursday, March 9, 1944. It was announced publicly one week later in print in The Mountain Echo. What follows in quotes is the entirety of that article:
“If present plans materialize, Fort Ashby High School will join the district scholastic football parade next fall.
“Ben Simoncelli, coach at the local school, announced last night that unless some unforeseen problems crop up, Fort Ashby will be represented by its first eleven the coming season.
“Getting down to the business of whipping up a team, Coach Simoncelli issued a call for candidates last Saturday and thirty-five boys reported. The spring practice session will last several weeks and the local mentor plans to go over fundamentals so that a lot of valuable time may be saved in the fall.
“The caliber of the material available is more than pleasing to Simoncelli, who reports that most of the candidates are tall and pack quite a bit of weight, and in addition, seem eager to learn.
“In previous years, Coach Simoncelli has been concentrating on a strong intra-mural football program to familiarize the students with the game and said, ‘I believe they are ripe enough to enter the scholastic competition.’
“Twelve of the candidates stand more than six feet and a large percentage of the prospective gridders are sophomores and juniors.
“‘This plan of mine will go through pending the outcome of my call from Uncle Sam,’ Simoncelli said. ‘The county board is wholeheartedly in favor of it.’
“Heretofore, Fort Ashby’s interscholastic athletic program has been limited to basketball.”
There you have it, beginnings of Fort Ashby football. Like everything in the World War 2 era, certainly for men of draft age, the fate of Fort Ashby football would depend on Uncle Sam. Apparently, Uncle Sam didn’t call Coach Simoncelli to battle, and as a result, Fort Ashby did indeed field their first team in 1944, and then again in 1945, and one more time in 1946.
In the three-year history of Fort Ashby Eagles football, the team played in 22 contests, and finished with a program record all-time of 2 wins and 20 losses for a winning percentage of 9.1. For what it’s worth, both of Fort Ashby’s wins came over Petersburg, 31-0 in their inaugural season of 1944, and 12-0 in their final season of 1946. The 1945 Fort Ashby/Petersburg game sandwiched in between was a real doozy, with the Vikings edging Fort Ashby 7-6.
With all due respect to the good people of Petersburg, the Vikings’ squad of 1944 struggled mightily. Competing in only five contests, Petersburg went 0-5 and were outscored by Franklin, Fort Ashby, Franklin again, and Moorefield by a combined total of 198-0.
Petersburg’s 1946 squad that gave Fort Ashby their second program win, faired only marginally better, going 0-7-1 on the season. The lone tie was to Romney 0-0. The Vikings’ seven defeats were to Berkeley Springs, Moorefield, Parsons, Franklin, Fort Ashby, Keyser Ridgeley by a combined total of 140-18, and that’s with the Parsons score not reported.
Regardless of the circumstances of Petersburg’s misfortunes, the fact remains that the upstart and short-lasting Fort Ashby football program earned both of their wins against the Vikings, and those victories most certainly should be celebrated.
In Fort Ashby’s inaugural season of 1944, the Eagles opened up against northern-Mineral County rival Ridgeley and fell to the Blackhawks 34-0. Game two saw Fort Ashby losing to Mineral County rival Keyser 28-6 in Keyser at Stayman Field.
One interesting note about that game is that in an article in the Wednesday, Sept. 13, edition of the Mineral News-Tribune, it was stated, “Coach Clark hopes there will be a large turnout at the Keyser-Fort Ashby game to support the home team, and financially boost Fort Ashby’s athletic department in the way of football as fifty percent of the proceeds will go to Fort Ashby.”
It was most certainly nice of Coach Clark and the good folks of Keyser to offer assistance to Fort Ashby’s first year program.
Games three and four of the 1944 season saw Fort Ashby fall to LaSalle and Romney by scores of 40-0 and 34-0 respectively, then game five saw the Eagles defeat Petersburg 31-0. In the final game of the season, Fort Ashby fell to Moorefield 41-7.
The 1945 season brought a few changes to the Fort Ashby football program. For starters, it was mentioned that in 1944 there were 35 participants signed up. In 1945, it was reported that the number for the second season had dropped to 21. Also of significance was a change at head coach.
According to a Sept. 25, 1945, write-up in the Mineral News-Tribune of the pending Keyser/Fort Ashby game, the following was said of the Eagles, “Although defeated 20-0 by the Ridgeley Blackhawks in its first game, Fort Ashby is improving under the coaching of Tom Small of Piedmont. Coach Small did not arrive at Fort Ashby until about a week before the opening game, and as Ridgeley has nine regulars back from last year it shows the Eagles have the makings of a good team.
Gone was Coach Ben Simoncelli who had left for a coaching position in Yeagertwon, Pennsylvania. The new coach, Tom Small, was a graduate of St. Peter’s High School in Westernport and WVU. Small had taught at Elk Garden for one year prior to joining the military and serving four years for his country.
1945 would see the Eagles suffer, going 0-9 and being outscored by a grand total of 279-48 by opponents Ridgeley, Keyser, Rowlesburg, Parsons, Petersburg, LaSalle, Moorefield, Berkeley Springs and Romney.
There’s evidence that the 1945 Eagles were somewhat of a passing squad. In their September 28 matchup with Keyser, Fort Ashby went three of 14 passing and tossed five interceptions, which played a huge role in their 37-0 defeat.
Despite a winless and somewhat rough 1945 season, Fort Ashby gave it a third and final go in 1946. The team would finish with a 1-6 record, with their lone victory being that 12-0 toppling of Petersburg in game five. Outside of that win, the Eagles were shutout in their five other games by a combined total of 217-0 to Ridgeley, Keyser, Berkeley Springs, Romney, Franklin and Moorefield.
In their game against Keyser in 1946, Coach “Tack” Clark started Keyser’s second string in the matchup. Not happy with the progress of the second string, Clark put the first string into the game in the second quarter, but at halftime, the two were deadlocked at zero points apiece. While Keyser ultimately won the game 21-0, Fort Ashby had put up a valiant fight.
Fort Ashby did not field a football team in 1947 or ever again for that matter. An interesting side note is that Fort Ashby’s dissolving of their football program left a hole in Keyser’s schedule. After a one-year absence in their series, Fort Hill replaced Fort Ashby on the Keyser schedule.
All in all, Fort Ashby High School had a terrific reputation in basketball and there will be more about that in a future edition or edition of the Mineral News-Tribune. Who knew, however, that from 1944-1946, the Eagles also fielded a football team? It took me reading “Pap Harold’s” obituary to find out; some of you may have already known, others are reading it for the first time.
A 2-20 overall record may not look impressive on paper, but it took a lot of guts to field a football program for the first time and then play a schedule against teams that had been playing for years. Today, we salute “Pap Harold” and all his Fort Ashby Eagles’ football teammates.