New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Before I went to basketball practice Sunday night, I opened a web page to glance at the roster of the Lower Merion High School basketball team.
New Castle will play the Aces tonight at Williamsport High to determine who will advance to the PIAA Class AAAA championship game.
What I saw concerned me. Lower Merion is a six-time state champion. The starting lineup includes a 6-7 guard, B.J. Johnson, who will play at Syracuse University. The remainder of the starters include a 6-8 center, and two forwards who stand 6-5 and 6-4.
They claim “A tradition of Excellence” at Lower Merion, as well they should — their gymnasium was bought and named after 1996 graduate Kobe Bryant. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
Even my wife Marisa, who had basketball forced on her because her husband coached the sport for 16 years, ask me sheepishly as I walk out the door: “Can you beat this team?”
To be honest, I had my doubts. The Red Hurricane, which is 29-0 this season, may be meeting its match. Our tallest player, Shawn Anderson, is 6-3. Our guards, Brandon Domenick and Anthony Richards, are 5-9 on a good day.
When I arrived at practice, the players were there early as they always are and were working on their shooting. Then, as I was chatting with one of the coaches, I saw something that immediately brightened my outlook about tonight’s game.
“Pudgy” and “Ripper” walked into the gym.
Unless you were born in the 1940s or ’50s, you won’t know these two Hurricane legends. But if you are a baby boomer like me, then Phillip “Pudgy” Tony and Richard “Ripper” Humphrey need no introduction.
In fact, full names aren’t necessary. Just say “Pudgy” and “Ripper” and those who know will remember them as two stalwarts of the 1967 WPIAL championship football team at Ne-Ca-Hi.
In 1967 there was no state champion crowned. The WPIAL title was the Holy Grail. To win that title the Red Hurricane had to beat Mt. Lebanon High School. The game was played on Thanksgiving Day at Pitt Stadium. Yes, Pitt Stadium. Some young people never saw it or know who played there.
That was 45 years ago. Why do I bring it up now? Well, the matchup that day against the Lebos was similar to what the ’Canes will face tonight.
Mt. Lebanon had a lineup dotted with Division I players. Their size advantage over the Red Hurricane was frightening. In pre-game warmups, New Castle looked like a Pop Warner team compared to Mt. Lebanon.
The ’Canes had no Division I players on the field that day. They were outsized at every position. A Pittsburgh sports reporter was so sure of the outcome that he said that he would sleep under the goal post at Pitt Stadium if New Castle won!
I hope the poor guy took heavy blankets: New Castle 20, Mt. Lebanon 14.
What was the difference? The Spirit of the Red Hurricane.
New Castle head coach Ralph Blundo talked about the Spirit in the locker room before the WPIAL championship game against Hampton. When he did I got the chills. I for one believe in that spirit.
So when I saw “Pudgy” and “Ripper” walk into the gym on Sunday I got strong. Whatever doubt I had left me.
When “Pudgy” asked coach Blundo if he could stay and watch practice, the young head coach, who wasn’t even alive in 1967, responded, “I would never ask one of the greatest Red Hurricanes of all time to leave HIS gym.”
Coach Blundo understands the Spirit. He feels it. It lives in him.
He has made sure that the current version of the Red Hurricane feels it too. It lives in them.
Just like the ’67 football team, this is a special group of young men. There are no superstars on this team. But they are tough. Their physical toughness is only exceeded by their mental toughness. I am certain they will stand tall tonight.
“Ripper” was an undersized defensive back and tight end who, like the current ’Canes, was as tough as nails. He said of Tony: “Mt. Lebanon couldn’t block ‘Pudgy’ that day. He was in on every play. They couldn’t hurt him. He was a rock and we just climbed on his back.”
I get strong when I see those guys. I feel like Hercules.
Somebody will be that rock for the ’Canes tonight. It might be Anderson, Domenick or Richards. It might be Malik Hooker or Tone Rudolph. It’s somebody different every game.
If we get to the championship game on Saturday in Hershey, make sure you get a ticket because we will win. I’m sure of it.
It’s the Spirit of the Red Hurricane.
(Larry Kelly is an attorney with the law firm of Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly and George, and a former sports writer at The News. He is the ninth-grade basketball coach at New Castle High.)