The roots of current Gaston County, Tri-County middle school athletic conferences dates as far back as 1920s

By Richard Walker

When Gaston County Conference and Tri-County Conference middle schools begin competitions in recent years, it’s easy to assume there will be playoff competition that will determine champions in all sports.

It hasn’t always been that way as the history of local middle school and junior high sports competition dates to the 1920s.

Grier Junior High became Gaston County’s first-ever football conference champion in 1958 in its second year as a school Here’s the 1958 team that includes coach John Kinlaw in far upper left corner

According to reports of the day, Gaston County’s “grammar school” league crowned only a champion in baseball and old Arlington School, which would eventually become a junior high school, was an early power.

Some schools didn’t even field teams, choosing instead to wait until the ninth grade for student-athletes to begin competing in sports at their respective high schools in Cleveland, Gaston and Lincoln counties.

That all started changing in the late 1940s, particularly in Gastonia where city rivals Arlington and Clay Street started what appear to be the first middle school and/or junior high football teams.

In a forerunner to the Ashbrook-Hunter Huss “Victory Bell” football game that ends their regular season, Revis Frye coached Clay Street to the first “city title game” 25-0 over Arlington in 1949. Mike McGinnis, who was the first 1,000-yard runner in the history of old Gastonia High School in 1952, ran for a touchdown, passed for a touchdown and kicked an extra point in that historic win.

The early entry into competition whetted the appetite for more competition as Gastonia’s two schools even competed for a junior high state basketball title in the 1950s with Wray Junior High (Clay Street was renamed for first Gastonia City Schools superintendent Joseph S. Wray) even finishing as runner-up in the 11th annual N.C. state junior high basketball tournament in High Point.

Revis Frye was the first Clay Street School football coach in 1949. Clay Street later became Wray Junior HIgh, Ashley Junior HIgh, York Chester Junior High and, finally, York Chester Middle School

Soon thereafter, exclusive locally-based leagues started taking form in this area.

In Cleveland County after that county’s 11-team all-county 1A high school league starting breaking up, middle school competition was waged in basketball and baseball by Bethware, Belwood, Case, Lattimore, Mooresville, Piedmont, No. 3 and Waco schools.

In Gaston County, a Junior High Suburban League competed for basketball and baseball titles by Chapel Grove, Costner, Flint Groves, Myrtle, Rhyne, Robinson, St. Michaels, South Gastonia and Victory.

In 1957, a Gaston County Junior High Conference was founded for football by Arlington, Belmont, Cherryville, Dallas, Grier, Hickory and Shelby. The league was later renamed three more times – to the Southwest Junior High Conference, the Tri-County Conference and Bi-County Conference – before a major restructuring of area leagues in 1974.

Schools that competed for those titles were Hickory’s College Park and Grandview schools and Newton-Conover from Catawba County, Crest, Kings Mountain and Shelby from Cleveland County, Belmont, Bessemer City Lincoln, Cherryville, Cramerton, W.C. Friday, Grier, Highland, Holbrook, Hunter Huss, Mount Holly, Southwest, Stanley, Tryon and Wray (later renamed Ashley in 1970) from Gaston County and Lincolnton from Lincoln County.

For five seasons beginning in 1961, all Southwestern Conference schools except Shelby formed a junior high conference comprised of Belmont and Cherryville of Gaston County, Chase, East Rutherford and R-S Central in 1961.

A major restructuring of local junior high leagues came about in 1974 when the Gaston County Conference was formed out of 13 teams. The six largest schools (by student population) were placed in Division I – Ashley, Belmont, W.C. Friday, Grier, Mount Holly and Southwest – with the seven smallest schools were placed in Division II – Bessemer City Lincoln, Cherryville, Cramerton, Highland, Holbrook, Stanley and Tryon.

The number went to 12 when Tryon was closed after the 1979-80 school year and to 11 when Highland was closed to become Highland Tech high school after the 1996-97 school year

Additionally, Bessemer City Lincoln became Bessemer City in 1981 and Ashley was renamed York Chester in 1987 when it moved across the street from the old Gastonia High School that bears its name to the original located for Clay Street and Wray junior highs.

Burns, Crest, Kings Mountain and Shelby of Cleveland County and East Lincoln, Lincolnton and West Lincoln of Lincoln County combined with Chase, East Rutherford and R-S Central of Rutherford County to form the Foothills Conference in 1974.

The opening of Burns and Crest junior highs in 1976 ended competition in the Cleveland County Conference that began in 1967 between Central Cleveland, North Cleveland, South Cleveland and West Cleveland schools.

And in 1977, Burns, Crest, Kings Mountain and Shelby of Cleveland joined College Park and Grandview of Catawba County and East McDowell and West McDowell of McDowell County to form the Western Junior High Athletic Association.

In 1988, Burns, Crest, Kings Mountain and Shelby were on the move again as they rejoined East Lincoln, Lincolnton and West Lincoln to form the Bi-County Conference. That league became the Tri-County Conference in 1995 when Chase, East Rutherford and R-S Central were added.

In 1999, a new Lincoln County school (Pumpkin Center) was added to the conference before changing its name to North Lincoln in 2007.

And while conference champions have been declared in all sports since 1957, championship playoffs didn’t start until the Gaston County Conference staged a football championship in 1974 and held championship games in all other sports beginning in 1982.

The Tri-County Conference began holding championship games in football in 2002 and all other sports beginnings in 2007.