Late last fall, Mitchell Stadium in Bluefield was voted “Best High School Football Stadium” in America by USA Today High School Sports.
Tucked away below the mountains on the West Virginia-Virginia border, Mitchell Stadium is a thing of beauty with a deep history.
I had a chance to pay a visit there last week and catch up with long-time Bluefield High head football coach Fred Simon.
The stadium is home to both Simon’s Beaver program and Graham High School, located in nearby Bluefield, Virginia. (Yes, two different towns that are located side-by-side with the same name).
Bluefield and Graham typically open the season against each other each year (imagine Ravenswood-Ripley). The rivalry is one of the oldest in the country at the high school level with crowds usually soaring past the stadium’s capacity of 10,000.
An interesting nugget about Mitchell is that while the stadium is located in West Virginia, it is actually closer to Graham High School than Bluefield High School.
Graham’s situation is one of the most unusual in the country, as G-Men teams play home games in another state.
The stadium is also home to the football program at Bluefield College, Virginia, which is located just a stone’s throw from the beautiful football-playing venue.
The stadium, built in 1935, was also once home to Bluefield State College when it fielded a football program.
Concord College (now University) has played some games there through the years.
Mitchell hosted the Class AAA state championship game in 1975 when the Beavers knocked off South Charleston.
It has also hosted other postseason West Virginia high school games as well as those in Virginia.
In 1953, West Virginia University and Virginia Tech squared off at Mitchell with the Mountaineers winning 12-7. That Mountaineer team, which featured the late Max Ludwig, a former Ripley High star, would go on to play in the 1954 Sugar Bowl.
-I first started learning a lot about Bluefield football and Mitchell Stadium with my high school football coach.
The late Frank Marino came to Ripley in 1977 and talked often about the proud Beaver program.
While I didn’t get the opportunity, Ripley football started playing Bluefield in 1979.
The first showdown took place at Ripley’s Memorial Stadium with the Beavers pulling out a 21-14 win.
The following season in 1980, Ripley made its first-ever visit to Mitchell and lost a tough 7-6 decision.
It turned out to be Ripley’s lone loss of the season. The defeat nudged Ripley out of the Class AAA playoffs, which would have been the first postseason appearance in school history.
Marino’s son, the late Mickey Marino, was the team’s quarterback and one of several senior standouts on that squad.
Marino and fellow senior Terry Ocheltree, a defensive terror, were both named Class AAA First Team All-State that year.
Ripley would defeat Bluefield the next two seasons, including a return trip to Mitchell in 1983 by a final of 34-14.
-Ravenswood football also has a history with Bluefield with all three meetings coming in postseason play.
The Devils recorded a victory over the Beavers in the first showdown back in 2010 in the semifinals of Class AA. The victory at Ravenswood’s Flinn Field propelled Dick Sturm’s undefeated Red Devils on to the state championship game at Wheeling Island Stadium against Magnolia.
Ravenswood’s next two meetings with Bluefield would take place at Mitchell.
The Beavers knocked off Mick Price’s Red Devils in 2013 opening round Class AA playoff showdown.
The next year, Price’s Devils returned to Mitchell and pulled the upset in a Class AA playoff opener.
-Bluefield has won 11 state championships.
The late Merrill Gainer got the ball rolling for the program’s incredible success.
He led Bluefield from the seasons of 1959 to 1967, with four teams capturing state championships (AAA).
Gainer compiled an amazing 87-6-1 record during his time there. Four of his squads were undefeated. Later he coached at Patrick Henry High in Roanoke, Virginia and won a state championship in 1973.
The late John Chmara, who was the head coach when Ripley collided with the Beavers, captured two state championships during his time as the Bluefield football leader. The first in 1975 and the second in 1984 – both at the AAA level.
Simon, a former Beaver standout and later a star for Concord, has guided the Beavers to five Class AA state championships since taking over as head coach in 1986.
At Concord, Simon played for the highly-successful Tony Colobro, who Frank Marino both played for and later coached with at old Welch High School.
The late Glynn Carlock, who was an assistant to both Gainer and Chmara at Bluefield, later became the head coach at Graham High and won two state championships in Virginia. A former player for Gainer at old Big Creek High in McDowell County, Carlock won 224 games from 1973-2004.
-Wonderful memories of a neat football venue. One voted best in the country.
And one where both county high school programs have played.