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Wheeling College’s First Basketball Game Remembered

By Staff | Dec 22, 2010

David fights mightily against Goliath but loses. It is one of the great stories of basketball in America. And certainly it is one of the greatest untold stories.

The Jesuits who started Wheeling College, now Wheeling Jesuit University, built it brick by brick, starting with a freshman class. There were few, if any, basketball recruits in the “Pioneer” class. The closest was probably Don Mercer, who had planned to attend Marshall University and play tennis.

But, the athletic director, Father Clifford Lewis, recruited Mercer off the clay courts at Oglebay Park, arguing that he could also play a winter sport at Wheeling College, Indoor tennis facilities were, of course, in the distant future.

The coach, Ed “Irish” Coyne, a fabled athlete at Wheeling Central Catholic and Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi, had been recruited by Father Lewis from the ranks of PPG Industries Chemical Division, north of New Martinsville.

Coyne had no prior coaching experience. At the school, there was an open call for tryouts and, according to Charlie Bishop, later an editor with the Wheeling News-Register, just about every able-bodied male in the school showed up.

Coach Coyne said a few years ago, “Father Lewis called me in and said, ‘I have put together a schedule for you. You start off with the WVU freshman at Morgantown, then Pitt, Duquesne, and ….’ To tell you the truth,” he said, “I didn’t hear a word after that.”

In the post WW II era of Mark Workman, Lloyd Shearer, and the legendary “Hot Rod” Hundley, the “Mounties” were the primal athletic team in the state. Consequently, it is quite understandable how opening the season at WVU might have caused at least some heart palpitations in Coach Coyne. The starting center, 6′ 1″ Don Mercer, was a product of Single-A Warwood High School in Wheeling. Somehow, he would reach above WVU’s 6′ 7″ Joe Posch, who was a heavily-recruited New Jersey high schooler, and win the opening tip. Mercer recently said he had been “apprehensive” at playing WVU on their home court.

If those fledgling Cardinals had realized what they were actually getting into on Dec. 1, 1956, at the old Field House in Morgantown, they might not have made the trip. Waiting their arrival on Beechhurst Avenue would be what is arguably the greatest recruiting class in WVU history, the nucleus of a team that, two years later, would play for the national championship.

An all-start lineup of Jerry West, Willie Akers, Joe Posch, Butch Goode, and Jim Ritchie, a Philadelphia high school star, would take the floor against seven callow youths from Catholic high schools in West Virginia.

Those youth included a grab bag quintet of other players from three states, two of whom, Mercer and John Mensore from Magnolia High School in New Martinsville, would become starters.

This team of virtual “nobodies” was without a major college prospect and had to both practice and play their “home” games in scattered high school gymnasiums in the Wheeling area.

These newly-minted Cardinals would lead George King’s WVU yearlings by 2827 after 13 minutes of play. The “Mounties” led by 10 points at the half time and ended with a 9271 victory margin. King, of course, was a former Morris Harvey College and NBA star.

One contemporary newspaper account attributed the win to WVU’s height advantage and deep bench. West lead the Mounties with 17 points and 19 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. He was outscored. however, by Jack Dematte, who had 18 points for Wheeling College with 35 minutes on the floor.

It’s safe to say that the Cardinals will probably never play a better team.