New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
(This is the fifth in a series of feature stories on the 2012 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame).
John Sarandrea came to New Castle High as a stranger with a New York accent.
And not a clue about Lawrence County.
Fifteen years later, he left as one of its greatest legends.
Sarandrea, who coached the Red Hurricane basketball team from 1992 to 2007, established New Castle as one of the premier programs in Pennsylvania, winning eight section championships and four WPIAL titles (1993, 1997, 1998, 1999), which is the most in Quad-A history. Their three straight WPIAL crowns is the only such feat in Quad-A. New Castle reached the playoffs 14 straight years, recorded four 30-win seasons and advanced to the state semifinals on four occasions.
He also helped develop some of the greatest players in ’Canes history, producing six 1,000-point scorers (New Castle had one prior to his tenure) and also aided the evolution of the only player in school history, David Young, to be selected in the NBA draft.
He was named the section coach of the year eight times and was the Western Pennsylvania Coach of the Year in 1998.
It was an era unlike any other in New Castle basketball history, and it’s one he — and the rest of the city — won’t soon forget.
“It’s almost surreal being in New Castle when things are going well,” he said. “You get that big feel because you’re being covered by the media. You get covered by radio. The newspaper puts you on the front page every day. This is a tough thing to top here. Even small Division I schools didn’t draw (as many fans) as we did — just enormous crowds. New Castle is very much like a family, and I just loved it here.”
His appreciation and success isn’t going unrecognized as Sarandrea will be inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame on April 29 at the New Englander. The social hour begins at 1:30 p.m., with dinner set for 3.
Tickets are available at the Lawrence County Historical Society Annex on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets also are available at Bucky Richards Barber Shop in Union Township and Hyde’s Drug Store in Mahoningtown. For more information, call (724) 658-4022.
It’s an honor Sarandrea never really anticipated prior to the early 1990s. Originally from Queens, N.Y., Sarandrea established himself as a budding coaching star at St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Bronx, where he earned a 101-19 record in four years while also working as a New York City fireman. He also produced a pair of NBA draft picks — including future NBA star Malik Sealy — and was named the National Coach of the Year by the USA Today in 1988, when his team finished ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The acclaim landed him a job as an assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh, where he replaced assistant John Calipari (now coach at the University of Kentucky) and worked under Panthers coach Paul Evans from 1988 to 1992. Pitt secured two NCAA Tournament appearances and an NIT bid during that span. Sarandrea, who worked as a recruiting coordinator, eventually grew a bit weary of the constant travel and grind that came with his position, and he started to seek a change.
“Initially, it was great and exciting, but being on the plane and being on the road got old quick, because you were alone a lot,” he said. “You flew in a lot of bad weather. I’ve been on some wicked flights. Sometimes I was on two and three flights a day. I would pack for 30 days. You’d be on the road for the whole month of September, then November. Then we’d be out for the whole month of March and July.
“It was rough.”
Part of the problem with the travel was that Sarandrea met his now ex-wife, Dr. Paula Joseph, during this time, and the travel made any type of relationship nearly impossible. She was in dental school at Pitt and planned to work with her uncle, who owned a practice in New Castle, after graduation. Her uncle died unexpectedly, however, and after Sarandrea’s pursuit to become a college basketball coach at his alma mater of Iona College fell through, as did another opportunity at Manhattan College, the two decided to move to Lawrence County. Paula opened her own practice, and Sarandrea applied to become a teacher and head basketball coach at New Castle.
He landed both, and not long after, the lore of New Castle began to grow with Sarandrea.
“We had a number of great teams along the way, and really, it’s just a great place,” he said. “We travel very, very well, especially when we’re successful. There’s huge crowds and a big fan base, and it’s a lot of fun. This community really rallies around their athletes and their sports teams, which made it really nice.”
Sarandrea learned about the ’Canes through experience and from his staff, one that, initially, he knew hardly anything about.
Jason Rankin, Bobby Kerr and Nick Padice (all former New Castle players) interviewed for the head coaching job along with Sarandrea, and when Sarandrea won the job, he brought each on staff, along with Bob Natale and, eventually, current New Castle basketball coach Ralph Blundo.
He hired despite not knowing any of them.
“I didn’t care if they interviewed or not,” Sarandrea said. “They wanted to be around, and I wanted them to be around. I didn’t know any of them, but we all got close very quickly.”
Blundo, who joined the staff a few years after Sarandrea was hired, also built a strong relationship with this new, fiery coach who was causing a stir in the community. Blundo, who won a WPIAL title this past year for the first time since Sarandrea’s 1999 team, said Sarandrea influenced him to go back to school and earn his master’s degree, which he did. The move led to Blundo becoming an assistant principal at New Castle High.
Sarandrea’s ability to hit it off with his assistants was similar to his seamless transition as coach, and Blundo said those fast-building connections were key to his success.
“John knew if he won right away that he could create a tremendous amount of excitement around the county, and boy did he create some excitement back in ’93,” Blundo said. “He had the foresight to see that. He came in and made himself at home. People just gravitated toward him because he had that type of personality.”
The newly acquainted staff won a WPIAL title and went to the PIAA semifinals in their first year of 1992-93, and the most dominant run in school history ensued. Blundo is attempting to continue the model of consistent success built by his predecessor. It’s a trait he partly acquired from Sarandrea.
“John maintained a high standard for his players and he did that regardless of his talent year and year out,” Blundo said. “The standard was the standard and he worked with each and every kid to reach that standard every year.”
Sarandrea, now 54, has two sons. He currently is the superintendent at Sharon High School, a position he’s held since stepping down from the coaching ranks in 2007. He didn’t dismiss a return to the bench, saying “if I retire and still have my health, I wouldn’t rule out coaching someplace.”
He admitted, though, it would be rather difficult for anywhere to measure up to the 15 years he had in New Castle, a thought he said was inspired by the people of the community.
“They fight for you, right or wrong,” he said. “We always said this when I was at New Caste, when you’re in the family, you can say whatever you want, but if you’re outside the family and say anything, man, you’re going to catch hell from all of us because we circle the wagons pretty good.
“Like I said, it’s very much like a family.”
It’s one Sarandrea was proud to be a part of.
TOMORROW: Mike Latsko