EDITOR'S NOTE: Third in a series of articles on the history of the city of Wheeling hosting the West Virginia high school football championship games.
According to coaches who have made the most trips to Wheeling for the Super Six, you give a little and you get a little by taking the state championships to the Northern Panhandle.
Since the Super Six left Charleston and moved to Island Stadium 25 years ago, three schools have made the trip 11 times — Class AAA Martinsburg, Class AA Bluefield and Class A Wheeling Central.
All 11 of those title-game teams for both Martinsburg and Bluefield were led by their current coaches - Dave Walker and Fred Simon, respectively. For Central, Jim Thomas took four teams across town to the finals at Island Stadium before he died in 2005, and present coach Mike Young has done it seven times.
Walker and Simon were in agreement about all their visits to the Wheeling Super Six - a great place and a great event when you get there, but they had a few reservations, especially at first.
Martinsburg made its first trip to Island Stadium in 2001, losing to Parkersburg 28-17. The Bulldogs, in fact, lost in their first four visits to the state finals in Wheeling before becoming West Virginia's preeminent football power, with seven titles since 2010.
Walker has seen the organizational skills of the Wheeling committee many times over, and is always impressed.
"I think they do a great job," he said. "I was never involved in the state championship at Laidley Field, but in Wheeling it's a first-class operation. Each team has a host and they make sure everything is taken care of - the hotels, the equipment. Those guys set it up and it's first class, I believe."
Walker's third trip to Wheeling wasn't so pleasant, though, for the 2003 finals against Parkersburg South. Island Stadium's then-grass field took a beating when the Class AA game was played in a wet snow and the footing became more treacherous as the weekend ensued.
Martinsburg, with a high-octane passing game led by a pair of eventual Kennedy Award winners - receiver Brandon Barrett and quarterback Nate Sowers - saw its 20-6 halftime lead in the AAA contest sink into the mud, losing 26-20 as South played keepaway, with running back Ben Gum slithering for 232 yards and three touchdowns on 37 carries. The Patriots tried just one pass all day. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, ran only seven plays the entire second half as the field thawed under intermittent sunshine.
"It's a shame we had to play a championship game on a field like that," Walker said after the game. "If we stay here - which I expect they will - then they need to do something about the field. Nothing against Parkersburg South. They have a great team. But we're a passing team, and for a passing team, the field conditions were different."
Of course, installing a new playing surface is exactly what happened. After 10 years of holding title games on grass, Island Stadium was fitted with artificial turf in 2004. Walker felt like his pleas were answered.
"I think we were one of the reasons they ended up getting turf," he said. "We had a bitter taste in our mouth after that. I felt like the SSAC should have provided us with a turf field or maybe postponed all three games. At that time, I was really a younger coach and I felt like we've got to be ready to go no matter what. In hindsight, I may have handled it differently. That's not to say we would have beat them on turf, but it would have been nice to see what happened."
Simon has led the Beavers to five AA championships at Island Stadium, and he also lauded the Wheeling committee for always meeting the needs of his players and coaching staff.
"You couldn't ask for anything better from the people up there," Simon said. "They're very professional and we're treated super, that's all I can say. Finding someone to treat you like we're treated in Wheeling would be hard."
For Simon and Bluefield, however, just getting to Wheeling is the hangup. It's a trip of about five hours in a bus from Mercer County on the state's southernmost reaches.
"It's probably harder on our fans than anybody," Simon said. "You start about 7-ish, and it's not easy for them traveling five hours for a state championship game. That's the down side of it. If it were centrally located, we'd get more people at the games."
That long jaunt also blindsides Bluefield's finances. Simon said the team can't take school buses any more because of mileage concerns, so the Beavers must pay for charter buses. And because the AA finals are played on Friday night, they must choose whether to stay overnight the day before the game or the day after.
"The debt part hurts us more than anyone," Simon said. "The SSAC only [pays for] so many rooms, and the school has to come up with the rest. You hate to leave kids at home who have been with you and deserve to play. If you go up the night before, you have to come back after the game, and you might get back at 3 or 4 in the morning. If you spend two nights, it's rough. If you go up Friday, you never know - what if the bus breaks down? That's happened to us once. It can be a headache with the travel.
"Whatever they choose is OK because we're treated great up there. I'm not complaining, just looking for ways [to make it better]. It's not an easy trip to make, but we're happy to make it. I'd still rather make it than not."
The last two years, Bluefield has played in the finals against Fairmont Senior, whose trip to Wheeling takes but 90 minutes. For Martinsburg, the travel aspect is negligible, as a venture to Wheeling is about four hours compared to, say, 41/2 hours to Charleston.
Ralph Hensley is one of a few head coaches with Super Six experience in both Wheeling and Charleston. He took East Bank to three AAA titles at Laidley Field from 1989-93 and led the Pioneers to the 1996 crown at Island Stadium. Three years later, he was back in Wheeling as an assistant coach for Riverside during the 1999 AAA finals.
Hensley also enjoyed his stays in Wheeling, but thinks it makes sense to return to Charleston.
"Wheeling does a good job," said Hensley, who retired from coaching in 2011. "They do treat you well up there. That's the key; they do a great job. They treated us really well, and we had a good time. Plus, we won (in 1996), and that always makes it better when you win. It's a nice thing to remember.
"But it's so far away, especially for people like Bluefield, who has to drive all the way up there. You have to think about time, and it's a long time to drive from Bluefield up to Wheeling, or Charleston up to Wheeling. If they put it maybe one year in Bluefield and one year in Wheeling, I'm not sure that would work, either. Just keep it in one central location, and Charleston is the perfect location. It's a central location and people can get from the north and the south and the west right to the middle. When it's two plus two is four, it makes it easy."