NEW CASTLE —
Don Ross taught physical education at New Castle High School, but he majored in chemistry when coaching the WPIAL champions.
Ross said all the pieces of the basketball puzzle came together perfectly during the magical season of 1981-82. “Everybody got along so well, but winning creates a lot of cohesiveness.”
It all started with the player that Ross calls “the best point guard he ever coached” — Barry Whetzel.
“Barry was phenomenal,” Ross said. “He rarely turned the ball over. He worked on his jump shot until he became a great shooter. If you left him open, he’d make you pay.”
“We ran a motion offense and let him create. And his teammates benefited, too. When you have Barry throwing you the ball, good things are going to happen.”
Ross likes the skills and cohesiveness of the 2012 ’Canes, too. He said the current club reminds him a lot of 1982.
Brandon Domenick is the Whetzel for these ’Canes, according to Ross. “It’s not fair to compare anyone to Barry, but Domenick is very good at the point.”
Both teams lacked size, forcing smaller, quicker athletes to play inside.
Russell Bruce and Bobby Natale Jr. played on New Castle’s junior varsity team until their senior year.
“Those guys came so far on one year,” Ross said.
Natale was a methodical free throw shooter and unsung hero in 1982. “He was very quiet,” Ross said. “But when the game started, he was ready to go. He did the little things that don’t always show up in boxscores, but coaches notice.”
Senior Malik Hooker is the 2012 player who fills the Natale role. “He does the same kind of things ... follows shots and makes things happen,” the former coach noted. “You don’t realize he’s in double figures until you look at the boxscore.”
Bruce was a young senior, who didn’t turn 17 until the end of the season. “But he played like a veteran,” Ross said. Although only 6-foot-1, Bruce played inside because of his jumping ability. “He was left handed and that gave him an advantage inside.”
Bruce was capable anywhere on the floor. When he played at Westminster College, he played guard.
Ross said Corey Eggelston reminds him of Bruce. “But we didn’t have anybody as athletic as Corey.”
Jimmy Brown was another 6-1 athlete who had the skills to play in the backcourt if the 1982 ’Canes had not been so vertically challenged. “Don’t get in his way,” Ross said. “If I told him we needed something done, it got done.”
Brown was instructed to keep future NBA player Armen Gilliam away from the boards during New Castle’s game against Bethel Park. “I told him if he had to foul, make it a good one,” Ross said. “He did and GIlliam decided to stay in the corner rather than came back inside.”
Ross said Antonio Rudolph has many of the same attributes as Brown.
Frank Bongivengo Jr. played quarterback in football and was a quarterback for the basketball team, too.
Bongivengo would often play the point to give Whetzel a break. In one game, Bongivengo made 12 shots that would have been good for three points had the rule been in existence then.
“Frank was not a prototypical basketball player, but he did things well. He hustled and went after loose balls like crazy,” Ross remembered. “We’d have loose ball drills until somebody got a bloody nose and Frank always got one.”
Tied with Bethel Park in the PIAA semifinals with four seconds left, Bongivengo made the game-winning shot from halfcourt. “He was a great shooter, and even though he wasn’t having a good night, he wanted the ball,” Ross said.
Ross said Anthony Richards is the Bongivengo for the 2012 team. “I like the way Richards plays defense. He never quits.”
At 6-1, Paul Schweikert had the size and skills to replace a guard or a forward.
“Any game he went in he helped us,” Ross said. “He was only a junior, but he wasn’t fearful.”
Jason Rankin, the current girls basketball coach at New Castle, was a guard who backed up Whetzel in 1982. “Jason would always help Barry prepare for a game,” Ross said. “He was coaching even then. At least he knows he was playing second fiddle to the best guard in Pennsylvania.”
Rankin had another role. A popular sports vernacular in 1982 claimed the game ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. But at New Castle, the games didn’t begin until the skinny guy vocalized. Rankin often wowed the crowd by taking a microphone and singing the national anthem.
The 2012 team has no answer for that.