Whoo are we? Whoo are we? Big Creek Owls!
That chant is as clear in my mind today as it was from 1981 to 2000, when I covered the McDowell County high school as sports editor of the Welch Daily News.
And it’s especially in my thoughts now, knowing that the grand old school, already scheduled for demolition later this month, burned down Friday morning.
Big Creek was a beauty: A classic brick and wood school, three stories with huge windows and a nifty second-story landing. Inside, it had atmosphere. Pictures of graduating classes lined its hallways.
Outside, the school fronted its football field, eventually named for one of its legendary football coaches, the late Mario Poletti. I loved its wide sideline on the school side. I never once got hit there while shooting photos.
Yes, Big Creek had the famous Owl perched on its roof in front that would light up during games.
And what games were played on that field! Big Creek, for all its fine basketball, baseball, track, tennis and wrestling squads, was first and foremost a football school.
According to Doug Huff’s “Sports in West Virginia, A Pictorial History,” Big Creek was West Virginia high school state champion by “popular acclaim” in 1932 with a 9-0 record, and co-champion (another 9-0 campaign) with Huntington (10-0) in 1932.
As has been well documented in BC graduate Homer Hickham’s books and the WV Woodman website (wvwoodman.com/hsfoot.htm), Big Creek sued the W.Va. Secondary School Activities Commission in 1956 to stop the Class AA state championship game between Weir and Fairmont Senior. The Owls, who had one loss in the past three years, claimed Weir did not meet the required five games in its own classification and should not be playing.
A court ruled against Big Creek, however, and the WVSSAC punished the school by outlawing it from competing in sports the following year.
(Knowing how fiercely “Big Creek District” loved sports, especially football, I’m surprised blood wasn’t shed over that ruling.)
Years later, Big Creek’s Dave Murray was the 1968 W.Va. Outstanding Football Player, as named by the Morgantown Touchdown Club.
The Owls were Class A runner-up (two classes back then) in 1952, losing 6-0 to Grafton; Class AA runner-up in 1976, falling 15-7 to Ravenswood; and again Class A runner-up in 1997, giving up a late score to Moorefield to lose 13-9.
• • •
One of the best teams in my 19 years at the WDN, Big Creek’s 1981 squad under Poletti, was bumped from the playoffs by a loss to Man. The game, played at War, was the last between the two schools for years because of escalating violence at the games.
It was a terrific, hard-fought match. The thing I remember most, however, was a valuable lesson I learned: When you’re covering a heated rivalry, don’t wear the colors of either team. A first-year guy, I had never covered Man before, and after the game I was threatened by a BC fan because I was wearing a blue sweater and a red shirt — Man’s colors.
A member of that 1981-82 team was running back Danny Abercrombie, whom I rank as the best male athlete I have covered on a regular basis during my 34 years in sports writing. Danny was first-team All-State in football and basketball, second team in baseball (He got robbed!) and won gold in the long jump, 100, 200 and in a relay at the state track meet in Charleston. Not a bad year’s work!
Danny went on to play four years for Marshall University. He led the Southern Conference in kickoff returns in 1983 (26.7 yards per carry) and 1984 (27.2).
His sister, Tywanda, was the finest defensive girls basketball player I ever covered. Blessed with incredible reflexes, she could break up 3-on-1 fast breaks like nobody’s business. She also owned the 100 and long jump at state track meets.
Like her brother, Tywanda went on to play four years at Marshall.
She and center Michelle Hairston, who averaged over 28 points a game, were the first players I helped put on an All-State team in any sport.
• • •
Big Creek often had excellent basketball teams, boys and girls, but was cursed to be in the same Class AA section for years as the legendary Northfork squads. When the Owls eventually dropped to Class A, Mullens and Baileysville stood in their way.
Remember the year three-win Gilbert pulled off one of the most improbable victories in W.Va. basketball history, upsetting No. 2 Baileysville?
I was there and couldn’t believe what I saw. When I got back to the office I called Big Creek coach Henry Lipscomb to tell him he would be going to Charleston. I knew Gilbert could never play a second time, against Big Creek, as well as it did that night against the Rough Riders.
Henry was already in bed, and at first he sleepily would not believe Gilbert had won that game. “I’m telling you, Henry, Gilbert won!”
As it turned out, both Henry and I missed the state tournament. Henry became ill in the middle of the regional final against Gilbert, and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, while I caught the stomach flu the day before the Owls’ quarterfinal game in Charleston.
• • •
Wrestling was huge at the school at one time. Coach Fred Schrom was one of the more colorful characters I’ve been privileged to cover. No snowstorm was ever too great to keep him, that green (naturally) stationwagon and his team at home. Fred said what he thought, whether it could be quoted or not.
The Payne brothers were especially good in the sport, and I often heard about the eldest, Wesley, who won three consecutive titles (1976-78) and compiled a 76-1 record those years and was 90-7 overall.
• • •
I made many friends at Big Creek during those years. People there were very exuberant. A football game was a true party, and as for basketball, let’s just say Phil Dunford (one of the best catchers I ever covered) and his pals sang my name at games years before Westside chanted that of former R-H scribe J. Daniel Rollins!
Big Creek combined with Iaeger to form River View High School in 2010. The population had shrunk too much to keep both schools open. Iaeger High was torn down a couple of years ago, and now Big Creek is gone.
Those schools are gone, but they’ll live forever in the hearts of those they touched.
— E-mail: dstillwell