New Castle News

March 4, 2014

Clutch coach: Intense practices, focus on film and lessons learned from local legends all help Blundo mold ’Canes into a history-making program

Joe Sager
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — It all starts at the top.

Like any quality organization, a foundation of success is built through strong leadership.

That’s evident with the New Castle High boys basketball program. Head coach Ralph Blundo and his assistants have helped the Red Hurricane make history as the only WPIAL hoops squad to win three-straight district titles with undefeated records.

New Castle completed its three-peat with a 55-49 win over Hampton in Saturday’s WPIAL Class AAAA championship game at Palumbo Center. It complemented the 2013 Quad-A and 2012 Triple-A title triumphs.

Overall, the ’Canes have racked up some eye-popping stats during this team’s run:

•Wins in 82 of their last 84 games

•68-straight regular-season wins

•46-straight wins against WPIAL teams

•41-straight section wins

•35-straight home wins

Blundo, a former standout player at New Castle, increased his record to 102-10 in four years leading the ’Canes. Overall, his coaching record is a sparkling 128-12. He went 26-2 in one year (1998-99) guiding George Junior Republic in Grove City.

“My staff and I try to get better every year. We’re constantly thinking of ways to get better and improve our system to make sure our players are growing and getting,” he said. “Make no mistake about it; I have never coached bad players. I was blessed to have good players. Certainly, everything looks better when you have good players.”



FIRST YEAR

Blundo was an assistant under John Sarandrea at New Castle for two years before he got his first varsity head coaching gig at George Junior Republic, a school of court-adjudicated youths, in 1998 as a 25-year-old. The Tigers were the defending PIAA Class AA champs. With Cincinnati recruit B. J. Grove and Gerome Ruff, who had plenty of D-I interest, they were favorites to repeat in ’99. On top of that, the program was in the midst of a long winning streak, which Blundo inherited from previous head coach Bob McConnell.

However, the 1998-99 squad was dealt a blow when Ruff completed his program and left GJR halfway through that season. The Tigers’ winning streak was halted at 52 games with a 42-40 loss to Mercyhurst Prep in the D-10 title game. George Junior advanced to the PIAA quarterfinals, but dropped a 77-59 decision to Windber.

“I was just a kid. That’s the most amazing thing. I was a seventh-grade coach for a year and a ninth-grade coach for a year and, all of a sudden, I was coaching the No. 1 team in the state in Double-A,” Blundo said. “As I reflect, I probably was a little too rambunctious at that point in my life to be really, really effective.

“Overall, I thought I did a good job there. I think just simple maturity and understanding and really having great assistants helped me. I learned that, if you surround yourself with great people who share your vision and are going to care as much as you care about what you’re doing, as a staff, you can do great things for your players.”

Blundo returned to New Castle after that season and remained an assistant coach through 2006.

“I got hired as a teacher. At the same time, the varsity assistant job opened up,” he said. “I always had aspirations to be the next head basketball coach at New Castle. I thought, by taking that varsity assistant position along with the teaching position, that would give me the best opportunity to do that.”

 

’CANES COACH

Blundo achieved his goal of becoming ’Canes head coach in 2010 when Mark Stanley stepped down three seasons after taking over from Sarandrea, who had moved to Sharon as its superintendent. New Castle went 20-8 and reached the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals and PIAA second round in Blundo’s first campaign.

It was in that season that the ’Canes suffered their last home loss (Jan. 15, 85-83 to Sharon) and section setback (Feb. 8, 58-54 at Blackhawk). This year’s seniors were freshmen during that campaign, which helped set the stage for the group’s three-year run.

“When Coach Blundo came along, I was familiar with him and I was excited,” New Castle senior Anthony Richards said. “I just didn’t know he was going to be this guy. As great of a coach that he is, every player on our team will tell you that he’s a 10 times better person. He’d do anything for us. He’s a great guy. If you ask me, I say he is the best coach in the state, hands down. What he did with us, he brought the program to what we have now.

“It all starts with him. Every single game we have, whether it’s the best team in the state or the worst team in the section, he has us prepared for everything that the team will throw at us. Every out of bounds play, every sideout play, every press. Everything they have, he watches.

“It’s the whole staff. It’s unbelievable the way they prepare us. We watch film twice a week. They order us pizza or wings and we watch film; watch ourselves and we watch the other team. The next day in practice, we go over and fix what we have. Coach Blundo is the type of coach that, if you’re a half inch from where he wants you to be, he is going to get on you about it.”

Preparation has become a hallmark for Blundo, his assistants and the team’s support staff.

“I know that my staff and I work hard at it,” Blundo said. “If you’re going to coach basketball, your players deserve the best you have to offer. They deserve that you work extraordinarily hard so they are prepared for when the game comes and they can just play. You can live with the results then.”

The coaching staff’s attention to detail and demands for excellence — on and off the court — are not lost on the players.

“In my opinion, I think we have the best coaching staff in the WPIAL,” New Castle senior Malik Hooker said. “Not only are they great coaches, but they are like our parents. They take care of us on and off the court. They make sure we’re getting our homework done and making sure we’re making good decisions outside of basketball.

“They are just like family to us. We’re one big family.”

 

WINNING PHILOSOPHY

Blundo benefited by learning basketball from coaching legends — as a player at New Castle under Don Ross and at Westminster College under Ron Galbreath, and as an assistant with Sarandrea, who is now New Castle’s superintendent.

“I’ve been blessed that I’ve touched the hands of a lot of great coaches and to be able to absorb some good advice I’ve learned from them. We create our own philosophy, but I didn’t make it up. I just learned it over time,” Blundo said. “I still keep in touch with my college coach. Coach Galbreath and I talk regularly. My high school coach, Coach Ross, we talk regularly. We bounce things off each other.

“I don’t know that there are many coaches who have a superintendent they can talk to and bounce things off of and talk about basketball and know that you’re getting great advice. John and I worked together so long, it’s nice to be able to bounce things off him.”

Sarandrea is happy to talk about basketball anytime.

“I wouldn’t say he comes to me for advice, but I would say we talk about things,” he said. “Usually, afterwards, it’s fun to chat about what you see, what you don’t see, what you feel, what you don’t feel. We do do that.

“He feels comfortable ‘debriefing’ in front of another coach. That’s always fun to do. I do enjoy that.”



EVOLUTION

Blundo and his staff continue to evolve as coaches and build on their successes and experiences.

“Over time, you just take a little bit of everybody and you think about things that will make your team better and make your system better,” he said. “Really, for us, I kind of had to change. The last time I was a head coach (at GJR), I had a 6-11 guy and a 6-7 guy. I ran all double post stuff.

“Then, I get the job here and the guys walk into the gym and the tallest guy is 6-1. At that moment, I knew I had to get out there and find a system that was right for this group. I called around, talked, read and settled in on a system that fit our personnel perfectly. The combination of all that, plus great players, led to our success.”

Sarandrea has enjoyed watching Blundo establish a strong identity.

“What I see from Ralph is a maturity and a combination of all of the coaches that have had an influence, certainly not just me,” he said. “He played for Don Ross and Ron Galbreath and coached under me for a number of years. I think you take from each coach the qualities and characteristics that you like and you form your own system and your own style based on that and I think that’s a good thing to do.

“Over the years, that’s what I’ve done. The people who have had great influence on me in the coaching realm, I’ve tried to take on the characteristics I thought made them successful and make some of those your own as you go. You have to be yourself, your own man. At the same time, you learn from the coaches what you didn’t like as well. As long as you’re learning and constantly willing to learn and change and get better, you’re always going to be in pretty good shape.”

Sarandrea knows life experiences outside of basketball help shape a coach’s personality, too.

“I think a lot of things happen to you along the way. I know, for me, when I became a parent, it really impacted the way I coached and how I talked. Whereas, before that, I didn’t have as much regard as I do now. I think, probably parenthood, has had some effect on Ralph,” he said.

“Knowing your players and how they respond to you being upset. If you’re upset, then they will normally follow suit. If you are calm, they will normally follow suit. Good coaches learn that over time – how players are going to feed off of them. I see a lot of that from Ralph. That’s especially important when you have young teams, not to lose your cool or to panic. I do see that from him, too. I just see, overall, really, really good things from his game coaching.

“I am not at practice, but I know they have to practice hard because, if they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t be able to do this in the game. Games are probably easy for them because practices are probably 10 times harder than any game they play. I mean that sincerely. Ralph knew that as a player and from working with me. We were the kings of the three- and four-hour practices. Nobody left the gym until we were done. He is really the complete package when it comes to coaching: He played; he coached successfully as an assistant and he’s making his own mark.”

Practices are one area where Blundo has made adjustments. Notoriously intense physically, the practice sessions ease up a bit as the season unfolds.

“We scale them down as the year goes on because it’s so much more important to be healthy and I learned that,” he said. “I thought that, my first year, maybe our run might have been cut a little short because I overworked the guys. I don’t ever want to make that mistake again. We believe in hard work, but I believe you have to temper it sometimes.”

While some things may change, Sarandrea can still pick out some characteristics that have been part of New Castle basketball for years.

“Oh absolutely. They run a lot of their own sets, but certainly they run sets that we had a great deal of success with over the years. I see them out there. In fact, he even calls them the same name in a lot of cases,” he said with a laugh. “There are what we would call ‘staple’ New Castle plays that we’ve run over the years. Some you put away on the shelf for a couple of years for when you have a team it will work well for.

“The playbook has a lot of similar things, as it should. The style of basketball has been the same for the last 20 years. You want to push it; you want to run; you want defense to be your signature; and you want to try to put some points up on the board when the opportunity is there. There are a lot of different things that are similar.”

Overall, Blundo and his coaches work the long hours and sacrifice time with their families and loved ones for one common goal — improving their players as human beings. The gold medals are a byproduct of that effort. They take great pride in it.

“I am born and raised from New Castle. I am as deeply rooted in a place as anyone could possibly be,” he said. “What’s been great for me is being able to watch my players continue to grow and get better and mesh and jell as a unit and seeing the success that comes with all the hard work.

“Looking at their faces Saturday, those are the best moments. Those are the moments you work for.”