Flashback Friday: Football on the Mountain
By Chapin Jewell
ELK GARDEN - To date, two Flashback Friday articles have detailed the football histories of both Fort Ashby and Piedmont high schools.
While interesting stories, both take us back, way, way back, in fact. In the case of Fort Ashby, their three football seasons took place in 1944, 1945 and 1946. For Piedmont, their 15 seasons were played out over a span covering the years 1911 to 1943.
Today, we need not look back quite as far to profile another Mineral County football program at a now defunct high school. From Fort Ashby and Piedmont we now head up on the mountain to Elk Garden to profile the Stags’ eight football seasons played from 1979 through 1986. In comparison to Fort Ashby and Piedmont, Elk Garden football seems like it happened only yesterday.
Yes, at a school that offered a high school curriculum as early as 1914, with the first graduating class of 1918 consisting of four seniors, it took Elk Garden a total of 65 years before they would field a football team at the mountaintop school.
In a Friday, Aug. 31, 1979, article in the Mineral Daily News-Tribune detailing the creation of Elk Garden’s first football team, it was mentioned that basketball was played in Elk Garden as far back as 1914, where the Stags played on an outdoor court. If basketball was indeed a winter sport over 100 years ago, can you imagine traveling to Elk Garden in January to take on the Stags on their outdoor court?
In any event, that News-Tribune article from 1979 is ripe with details about the beginnings of Elk Garden’s first football season. The following excerpts are direct quotes from that article:
“Elk Garden High School will make its scholastic debut in high school football circles when the Stags host East Preston (Terra Alta) in a 1:30 matchup at Elk Garden. It’s been only a few months since the decision was reached to have the grid sport at the mountaintop school which was founded in the early 1900s.
“Meanwhile, much time and effort along with cash donations have gone into having football at Elk Garden. Enthusiasm, one supported noted, is great, and fans are looking forward to this afternoon’s opener.
“Coach Mike Hicks and assistant Jim Ellifritz are working with 37 boys, having started the initial stages of the game on Aug. 1, the first day of practice in West Virginia. Two-a day drills were in progress until this week.
“A field is being develop at the school, but it won’t be ready for the home opener. Therefore, today’s game will be played on the adjacent practice field.
“A 10-game schedule has been developed for the first year which includes eight high school and two jayvee clubs.”
The Stags would go on to drop that opener to East Preston but the game was close, with a score of 7-0. In a game plagued by turnovers, 10 total to be exact, East Preston used a 12-yard touchdown pass to secure the one-touchdown victory. In their second game, Elk Garden fell to Bruce 10-0, and in game three, the Stags lost to Franklin 42-8.
After starting the season 0-3, Elk Garden captured their first ever victory over East Hardy, a 12-0 contest between two schools fielding football for the first time. East Hardy was the newly created high school in Hardy County formed through the consolidation of Mathias and Wardensville high schools, neither of which had ever fielded football.
According to the Monday, Sep. 24, 1979, game story in the News-Tribune, “Quarterback Kenny Nelson sparked the Stags to the Saturday win, scoring both touchdowns and rushing for 158 yards, 61 of them coming on a 61-yard touchdown scamper.”
Also, from the same article, “Elk Garden’s defense was able to shut down East Hardy, which was able to net only 17 yards of total offense, all on the ground.”
Back-to-back shutout losses to Moorefield (30-0) and Circleville (14-0) were followed by Elk Garden’s second victory of the season, a close, 12-6 defeat of the Keyser jayvees in the homecoming game for the Stags.
Elk Garden used a first-quarter safety and a second quarter 14-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Nelson to Brad Schoenly, with a two-point conversion run from Robert Warnick, to jump out to a 10-0 early lead. Keyser JV’s lone score came on an 80-yard pass from Joe Davis to Tony Gilmore.
The Stags followed up that victory with a close 6-0 loss to the jayvees of Southern Garrett (more about that later), but successfully ended their season with back-to-back victories over East Hardy again (6-0) and West Virginia Deaf (6-2).
Against East Hardy, Kenny Nelson scored the lone touchdown on a 12-yard run and the Stags’ defense thwarted three East Hardy scoring attempts at the goal line. Against West Virginia Deaf, the Lions held a 2-0 halftime lead. After the break, Elk Garden’s Robbie Lyons blocked a punt that was covered by Keith Lambka. Quarterback Bill Braithwaite then hit with a 38-yard scoring strike to give Elk Garden the 6-2 lead for good.
While on the field, Elk Garden finished with a record of 4-6, the Stags were later awarded a forfeit victory over Southern Garrett’s jayvees as it was found they used an ineligible player. With the forfeit win, Elk Garden, on paper at least, finished the season with an impressive first-year tally of 5-5.
In total, Elk Garden would play eight seasons of football from 1979-1986, and tallied an overall record of 18-57 for a 24 percent winning percentage. There was a stark contrast between the success of the first four seasons of Elk Garden football, and the last four seasons for the Stags. From 1979-1982, Elk Garden compiled a 15-23 overall record under Coach Mike Hicks. In the final four seasons under Jim Nicol and Steve Delaney, each coaching for two years, the Stags went a combined 3-34.
Of Elk Garden’s 18 total victories, one-third of them (six) came over East Hardy, three came over East Preston, two over West Virginia Deaf (one by forfeit), and two over Hundred. Single victories came over Keyser’s jayvees, Hancock, Circleville and Virginia Deaf and Southern Garrett’s jayvees, both by forfeit.
The most successful Elk Garden football team was the 1981 squad that finished with a winning record of 6-4. 1981’s Stags opened the season with three straight victories over Hundred (30-8), East Preston (35-0) and Hancock (5-0, yes, 5-0). Additionally, Elk Garden would go on to collect wins against Circleville (16-6), East Hardy (40-0), and West Virginia Deaf (1-0 by forfeit).
Six years after their most successful 6-4 season, it was announced that lack of numbers had forced the school to cancel football. The cancellation was announced in an article in the Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1987, edition of the News-Tribune. The following are excerpts from that article:
“Lack of numbers has forced Elk Garden to give up football, principal Charles Keller said this morning. Keller will appear before the Mineral County Board of Education tonight to explain the situation and set in motion plans for a fall cross country program at the school.
“Keller said some 11 boys were ready for pre-season drills with prospects of four later after finishing working at summer jobs. Schools on this year’s schedule have been contacted, and the school is taking action to sell its equipment.
“The team played its home games at D & L Field, adjacent to the school, built for the school mainly by D & L Coal Company when the sport was adopted in 1979.”
We are now some 34 years removed from having football up on the mountain at Elk Garden, but the memories of the eight-year football program remain. Though football stopped for the Stags after the 1986 season, from that point forward, particularly once Elk Garden was absorbed into Keyser High School in 1997, Elk Garden student-athletes have contributed on the gridiron as members of the Golden Tornado football program.