New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
District titles, big games, tournaments, rivalries.
New Castle high’s boys basketball team has many monumental victories throughout its storied existence. The many banners hanging at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House help prove it.
However, the Red Hurricane’s 52-39 victory over La Salle College for the PIAA Class AAAA championship on Saturday ranks at the top of that list.
And, four men representing nearly 700 of the program’s triumphs were among the thousands of New Castle fans in attendance at Hershey’s Giant Center — Connie Palumbo, Don Ross, John Sarandrea and Mark Stanley. Those four represent the ’Canes’ previous head coaches in the last five decades until Ralph Blundo took over in 2010.
“I thought that was really special that they were all there on that night to share in that moment,” Blundo said. “One wasn’t happier than the other because this is something the Red Hurricane family has been chasing for so many years.”
Here’s what the former head coaches had to say about the team’s run.
Palumbo, who coached New Castle from 1960-72, is an avid New Castle fan.
“In our hearts, we’ve never left the program,” he said. “I never miss a home game. I see some of the away games, too. I saw most of the playoff games. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s amazing what they did.”
He was thrilled to see the ’Canes capture their first state title.
“As an historian, I can tell you New Castle always had good basketball. I just love New Castle basketball; I love all New Castle sports. All of us in this city and surrounding townships are ecstatic,” he said. “We exorcised the demons. Everyone was tremendously happy with it. It’s one of the greatest weekends I’ve ever experienced.”
Palumbo watched Blundo grow into an all-star basketball player and develop into one of the state’s top coaches.
“I have known Ralph since he was a kid. I’ll have conversations with him. I just think he has a gift. I think it came from his upbringing and playing for Don Ross at New Castle and Ron Galbreath at Westminster,” he said. “I think he is one of the finest young coaches in the country. Just seeing what he did, they beat all-comers because they were prepared better than anybody else.
“Every game they went further into the playoffs, the coaching took over. He has the best backdoor cuts. He has the best full-court trap press I have ever seen. That’s all coaching. He went to the next level. I think he’s awesome. You talk about being humble. He deflects it all to his teams. He has a group of assistants who are excellent, too. Every one of those assistants all played for New Castle and they have tremendous loyalty. They are good coaches and people. I am proud of them.”
Palumbo has praise for the players, too.
“I am a gym nut. I still go to the Y a lot and I see those kids. They are gentlemen,” he said. “They are humble kids. Not only is Ralphie a great coach and worked them to be one of the best basketball teams ever, but they are gentlemen, too.”
Ross served as Palumbo’s junior varsity coach and took over as varsity head coach from 1972-91. He coached Blundo in high school and knew he was something special.
“Ralph is a great person as a well as a great coach. He played for me for three years and those were the finest years. He made coaching fun,” he said. “Ralph doesn’t forget the good things you do for him. He was almost a one-man show for us. He went to the Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh. He had double figures and was MVP (of the 1991 WPIAL vs. City/West Penn all-stars game). He was just elated. But, he was just as humble as he is now. I am very proud of him as a person, coach and player.”
Ross marvels at what Blundo has been able to accomplish in four years leading New Castle. Bundo has a 107-10 record in four years leading the ’Canes. Overall, his coaching record is a sparkling 133-12. He went 26-2 in one year (1998-99) guiding George Junior Republic in Grove City.
He guided New Castle to:
*Wins in 87 of its last 89 games
*68-straight regular-season wins
*49-straight wins against WPIAL teams
*41-straight section wins
*35-straight home wins
“As far as preparing for a game, I don’t think anyone is better right now. I am glad he’s done what he has with this program. He has done it the right way. The kids produce for him. He never once badmouthed a kid. He has learned something along the way because he has handled the kids exceptionally well,” Ross said. “Everybody has a few problems, but Ralph kept them to a minimum. The kids worked their buns off for him. He has surrounded himself with great people, too. Eight of his coaches all played for me in the program. They are all on the same page and they all worked so well together. I think that made it a successful program, but you have to have someone like Ralph draw up the blueprints.”
Since the PIAA introduced Class AAAA in 1984, the ’Canes became the fourth undefeated boys champion in the state’s biggest classification. Williamsport (30-0 in 1984), Carlisle (33-0 in 1988) and Chester (32-0 in 2012) are the others. Overall, the squad became the 12th undefeated WPIAL boys state champ and first in Class AAAA. Sto-Rox’s 1983 squad was the last district team to claim an unbeaten state title.
“You never have an off night on defense. That’s the attitude they had. They won close games because they tightened up the belt on defense,” Ross said. “That’s the way you have to play when you’re in Section 3 and the way you have to play if you want to play at New Castle. They bought into it.”
Ross was happy to watch the team because of the way the players conduct themselves.
“They didn’t want to let the New Castle people down and they certainly didn’t. We’re all proud of them. They acted like gentlemen. Ralph brought them down to a level where they were respected by everyone. They were all gentlemen and they didn’t brag. They do what it takes to win. That’s what makes you New Castle athlete,” he said. “These kids are good friends and that’s what makes it good when you’re in battle. That’s the camaraderie. Size didn’t mean a whole lot to them, just the way they played together. They worked for each other. I never saw anyone argue.
“They didn’t let things happen, they made them happen. When you do that, you’ll be a winner. It was a thrill for me to watch.”
Ross guided the ’Canes to the 1982 WPIAL Class AAA title and to the PIAA title game at Hersheypark Arena, but the team dropped a 42-38 decision to Whitehall.
“I went down to Hershey with (former assistant coach) Ed Germanski last weekend. We went into Hersheypark Arena and all we found was four kids skating on the ice. Last time down there, there were 8,000-9,000 people in there; that is where we all lost,” he said. “I hadn’t been there for 32 years almost to the day. I didn’t want any part of Hershey. I didn’t want any Hershey’s Kisses or any of that. That loss left a sour taste. I didn’t want that to happen to Ralph.
“We went down and remembered all of the ugly times,” he continued. “I got rid of the hex. I texted that to Ralph. He liked it.”
Sarandrea, who is now New Castle’s superintendent, coached the ’Canes from 1991 until 2007. He was glad to see many familiar faces, especially those of the former coaches, in Hershey.
“I think that’s awesome. We all had some great teams through the years. We all feel like we’re still part of the program. For them to come to Hershey is really impressive,” he said. “Everybody is still vested. Everybody still celebrates in the success of the program. A lot of those guys dedicated many, many years of their lives to it.
“I had a great weekend. It was great to see everybody. It was like being at a reunion or wedding because everyone was there to celebrate the same thing. The students were awesome. We had 500 students who went four and half hours down and then four and a half hours back. That was an awful lot to ask of them, but they did it. That was pretty amazing.”
Like many, Sarandrea marvels not only at the team’s success this year, but its run of three-straight unbeaten WPIAL titles.
“Whenever something is deserved and when you see people that are deserving of success and accolades, how could you not feel great about it? I am very happy for the all the things they achieved and things they accomplished because it’s not like we didn’t have other great teams throughout our history,” he said. “When you look at the unlikeliness of them going 31-0 after graduating three pretty good starters, including one who went Division I, wow – who saw that coming? It’s a tremendous tribute to the kids and the coaching staff.
“It was quite an accomplishment. I look at this team similarly to when we won a WPIAL title with four sophomore starters in 1997. I was just hoping to get into the playoffs. To lose three starters and the run table, that’s very impressive.”
Sarandrea guided New Castle to three-straight WPIAL Class AAAA titles (1997-99) and another in 1993. The ’Canes reached the 1998 PIAA title game, but dropped a 68-48 decision to Harrisburg. This year’s senior group helped New Castle win the 2012 WPIAL Class AAA title and the last two Class AAAA crowns.
“The bar was already high. There are maybe six or seven school districts that have won three consecutive WPIAL championships and we’ve done it twice. What are the chances of that?” he said. “You could coach many, many years and never have a group that does that.
“This group was so easy to root for. They are so good both on and off the floor. They have over a 3.2 grade-point average and they’re just good kids; they made it easy to root for them. I really believe that’s why the following was so big. People want to be around successful people and that’s what we saw.”
Stanley coached New Castle for three years (2007-10) and has strong ties to the team. His brother-in-law, Bob Natale, is a ’Canes assistant and his nephew, Robert, was one of the team’s top substitutes.
“It was exciting being in the crowd and all the energy the New Castle fans brought to it,” he said. “That group of kids, they are all good kids. It was so nice to go down there see them get it done, especially for this area. It’s just so special.
“I think, with all the schools in the area, when teams are successful, everybody roots for them and wants to see this area do well. No one will forget about this one.”
Many have not forgotten about Stanley’s 2003 Union team, which won the WPIAL Class A title as No. 12 seed. Those Scotties advanced to the PIAA championship game, but dropped an 80-69 decision to Scotland School, which closed in 2009. Stanley was named the Associated Press Class A Coach of the Year.
“Getting back to the Giant Center brought back a lot of memories. The nice thing is this team was able to finish it,” he said. “Whether you’re able to win or lose, getting there marks such a successful season. They will have those memories the rest of their lives. We went down and didn’t get it done (in 2003), but it’s something you never forget. Walking in there, it felt like that 2003 game was just yesterday. It was nice revisiting and it was nice to see they were able to finish what they started.”
Much like those Scotties, the ’Canes had a special aura.
“You hear coach Blundo talk about intangibles and they just had a belief they’d win. Even if they got down, they didn’t panic. They just knew how to win,” Stanley said. “You have the obvious stars, but, like that saying, you had ordinary people do some extraordinary things. It’s a magical run. Everything the coaches did worked; everything the players did worked. It takes a group to be selfless and that’s what those teams had. When you have that, it’s tough to beat.
“My wife, Beth, teaches at New Castle and those kids have been hard workers since they were young. It’s nice to see them be so successful. I can’t think of a better group of kids,” he continued. “You can see it on the floor that they are not selfish. Credit coach Blundo and his staff and how they get them to play together and how hard they play all the time. That team was so classy. You want all your teams to act like they acted.”
New Castle went 87-2 over the past three seasons. Stanley knows that may never be topped.
“To do what they did is not easy,” he said. “You can never say never, but, boy, this is one for the ages, that’s sure.”