New Castle News

January 1, 2013

Local sports 2012: A year of sadness and celebrations

Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The 2012 calendar year was a happy one for many Lawrence County sports teams and stars.

It started with sadness the likes of which the local sports arena rarely has seen.

Just 12 days into the year, New Castle High football faithful were sent into mourning with the passing of legendary former football coach Lindy Lauro.

As the year progressed, state and district championships were won in various sports, from New Castle to Neshannock and to Ellwood City Lincoln.

And there was a changing of the guard at New Castle both in football and girls basketball.

A pair of county football programs turned things around to make a run at a WPIAL Class A crown.

A stroke cost a former high school football star the ability to continue his career at the collegiate level, while a 43-year-old man took the basketball court once more.

Many sports stories were considered, but a News panel narrowed down the list to the Top 10.

Voting for the list were director of new media Tim Kolodziej, sports editor Kayleen Cubbal, features editor Dan Irwin, sports writer Ron Poniewasz Jr., sports correspondent Joe Sager and reporter David Burcham.

Here is how the balloting concluded:

1. Beloved former New Castle football coach Lindoro “Lindy” Lauro died Jan. 12 at the age of 90 at the Greer House.

His funeral brought former players and sports dignitaries from throughout the country to pay tribute to the man who, for so many years, was the Glorious Tradition of New Castle High football.

Lauro, who had been fighting medical problems for several years, coached the Red Hurricane from 1961 to 1992, winning WPIAL titles in 1967, ‘73, and ‘75, while compiling a career record of 220-104-15.

Lauro’s 200th win in 1987 joined him with another ’Canes legend — Phil Bridenbaugh — in the 200-win club. The accomplishment enabled New Castle to become the only high school in the country with two coaches boasting 200 or more wins.

In addition, Lauro coached six undefeated teams, won 10 Midwestern Athletic Conference crowns and finished as the WPIAL runner-up in 1982, ‘83 and ‘87. He was named MAC Coach of the Year nine times and Quad A Coach of the Year twice.

2. The New Castle boys basketball team put together quite a season last year. The ’Canes finished 27-1, including 22-0 in the regular season.

New Castle earned the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs after winning the Section 2 title with a 12-0 record. The ’Canes knocked off Hampton in the championship game, 57-44. The Talbots are coached by former Westminster College standout Joe Lafko. It was the eighth district title for New Castle.

The ’Canes topped Hickory, which is coached by former Wilmington sideline mentor Nick Cannone, in the first round of the state playoffs, 83-47. But Montour dealt New Castle its lone loss of the year, 50-43, in the second round of the state playoffs. The 27-game single-season winning streak equaled the longest in the program’s history, tying the 2001-2002 team, which finished 30-2.

New Castle picked up where it left off after last season. The ’Canes are currently 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after jumping up in classification. New Castle is outscoring the opposition by 28 points a game.

3. Frank Bongivengo Jr. resigned on March 12 as the New Castle football coach. Bongivengo and his wife Karen were facing theft, conspiracy and forgery charges  stemming from alleged misappropriations of $3,618 from a youth football program at the time of his resignation.

On April 26, 1999, New Castle graduate Joe Cowart was named Bongivengo’s successor. Cowart, a great-nephew of Lauro, played quarterback and safety for the ’Canes.

Cowart was hired during a tension-filled meeting by a vote of 5-3. Former New Castle and Penn State University standout Bruce Clark also was in the running for the job. About 70 people attended the school board meeting and seven spoke on behalf of Clark, who also competed in the NFL for eight years with the Saints and Chiefs.

New Castle finished 4-5 in 2012 and narrowly missed the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs.

4. The Neshannock softball team claimed the PIAA Class AA championship, 4-3, over Warrior Run on June 15 at Nittany Lion Softball Park. It marked the first state softball championship for a Lawrence County school.

The Lady Lancers’ Madison Altmyer scored the winning run when she sprinted home on a wild pitch in the bottom of the eighth inning.

The Lady Lancers (24-1) entered the WPIAL playoffs unbeaten, but were ousted from the district playoffs by Deer Lakes, 2-0, in the semifinals. Neshannock topped section-rival Riverside in the consolation game, 3-2, to advance to the state playoffs.

The Lady Lancers won three PIAA playoff games before topping Warrior Run in the finals. They defeated Philipsburg-Osceola (5-3), Fairview (4-3) and Martinsburg Central (15-5) in the state playoffs prior to topping Warrior Run.

5. The Neshannock and Union football programs put together a magical season.

The Lancers finished 10-2, including 7-1 in the WPIAL Class A Big Seven Conference. Neshannock shared the conference crown with Sto-Rox and Rochester.

Neshannock, which was seeded 13th in the WPIAL playoffs, topped Jefferson-Morgan in the first round of the district playoffs (42-14) and Monessen (24-21) in the quarterfinals. The Lancers, though, were eliminated in the semifinals by eventual state champion Clairton, 37-7. The win over Jefferson-Morgan was Neshannock’s first postseason win in the program’s history.

Ernie Burkes’ 1-yard run with four seconds left clinched the Lancers’ quarterfinal-round win over Monessen.

Union lost to the Lancers in the regular-season finale, 42-34. The Scotties were seeded 10th in the playoffs despite the head-to-head loss to Neshannock.

Union topped Beth-Center in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. The victory marked the Scotties’ first postseason win since 1979.

Wilmington finished 9-3, advancing to the District 10, Class AA championship for the first time since 2009. The Greyhounds lost to Region 3 rival Hickory, 39-7, fumbling five times. Wilmington defeated the Hornets in the regular season at home, 35-28.

Wilmington needed two overtimes to knock off region foe Greenville in the quarterfinals, 10-9. The game was scoreless after regulation following a 26-0 Greyhounds verdict in the regular season.

6. Lawrence County stole the show May 30 in the WPIAL baseball championships at Washington’s Consol Energy Park.

Ellwood City defeated Section 5 rival Riverside for the Class AA crown, 9-7. Neshannock cruised to a 5-0 decision over California to claim the Class A title.

The Wolverines built a 7-1 lead after two innings and held on for the win. Zach Mathias was 3 for 3 for Ellwood in the championship game. The win marked the fourth district title for the Wolverines and first since 2003. Ellwood (21-3) was eliminated in the first round of the state playoffs by North Star, 2-0.

The Lancers broke a scoreless tie with a run each in the fourth and fifth innings before putting it away with a three-run sixth. Alex Strittmatter tossed a complete game, giving up five hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts.

Neshannock (22-3) topped Bishop Guilfoyle in the first round of the state playoffs, 2-0, but lost in the quarterfinals to Elk County Catholic, 4-3.

7. New Castle girls basketball coach Jason Rankin resigned and was hired May 7 as the Sharon boys basketball coach. His three-year contract at New Castle expired after the 2011-2012 season.

Rankin, a 1982 New Castle graduate, was the Lady ’Canes’ head coach for three years after Luann Grybowski resigned to take the Neshannock girls basketball job. Rankin was an assistant coach under Grybowski at New Castle.

Rankin recorded a 59-19 overall mark as the New Castle girls coach. The Lady ’Canes reached the WPIAL playoffs all three years under Rankin’s guidance and the PIAA playoffs twice. New Castle won the WPIAL Class AAA championship in Rankin’s first season at the helm (2010) with a 66-61 decision over section rival Hopewell.

New Castle finished 13-10 last year. The Lady ’Canes defeated Mount Pleasant in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs (43-42), but dropped a 57-44 decision to section rival Blackhawk in what proved to be Rankin’s final game at the helm of New Castle.

8. Derrick Burns was a standout running back at Wilmington and accepted a scholarship to continue his football career at Pitt.

On May 23, Burns suffered a stroke and the effects of it ended his football career. Prior to the stroke, Burns was suffering from debilitating headaches, which were caused by severe dehydration.

When Burns suffered the stroke, he was paralyzed on his right side after falling between his family’s living room and kitchen. His paralysis had disappeared almost overnight, but that’s when it became apparent his playing days were over.

9. Brian Rice, a 1987 New Castle graduate, walked on to play men’s basketball at Geneva College.

Rice, who is 43, opted to join the Navy instead of attending college right out of high school. He is listed as a 6-foot-2 freshman guard/forward on the Golden Tornadoes’ roster.

Rice has played in nine games off the bench for Geneva (1-8) and scored 17 points. He is studying community ministry.

10. Friday night lights are returning to Shenango.

The Shenango Area School Board announced in December it will change its policy from playing home games on Saturday nights to doing so on Friday nights. The Saturday night tradition began in 1966, when Frank Bongivengo Sr., in his first year as head coach, approached the board about playing on Saturday nights instead of Fridays.

The board agreed to try it for the opener. The idea seemed to be a hit with fans, prompting a change in 1967 to a permanent Saturday night home slate for the Wildcats.

(Email: rponiewasz