New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Days after its second consecutive WPIAL championship, it is business as usual for the New Castle High boys basketball team.
“A couple of days after, it still feels good,” senior guard Brandon Domenick said. “It’s going to feel good for awhile, but we know we have to put it aside because we know we have four or five more games to play, and we have to get ready for state.”
A fitting mindset for this Red Hurricane team — one that came into the season with high hopes and high pressure to succeed for the second year in a row and did exactly that.
“I’d have to say the attention has been the biggest mountain for us to overcome. We didn’t really look at it, because coach (Ralph) Blundo and the coaching staff did a good job of keeping our minds out of the newspapers and what people were telling us,” senior forward Shawn Anderson said. “It’s definitely hard to not think highly of yourself when everyone is telling you every five minutes how great you are and how great you could be. That’s definitely something we’ve had to overcome and I think we’ve done a good job of keeping our mindset pretty levelheaded.”
The ’Canes again have reached the mountaintop, at least as far as the WPIAL is concerned. This season they did it in style, accumulating a 26-0 record, culminating in a 68-53 championship game victory over Hampton at the A.J. Palumbo Center on Saturday. By winning the crown this year in Class AAAA, New Castle made history. It became the first school to win back-to-back WPIAL championships in different classifications, having taken home gold in AAA last season. The ’Canes year-long efforts have earned them Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“It feels good with people telling you congratulations. It feels good winning back-to-back WPIAL championships, this time in Quad-A,” junior guard and sixth man Drew Allen said. “People doubted us, and we did it.”
It hasn’t been an easy season for New Castle by any stretch. Along with dealing with a new classification, new opponents and high expectations, the team has had to endure struggles off the court. The ’Canes experienced several deaths to members of their family and community throughout their time together. Former player, Corey Eggleston, a starter on last year’s championship team, lost his father, Corey Eggleston Sr., in November. Senior guard Jesse Salzano lost his grandfather, Joseph Farris, while Anderson lost his grandmother, Candace Anderson, in December.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity recently and a lot of deaths,” Drew’s brother and junior center Stew Allen said. “We were all here for each other and treated each other just the same. We’re all family and we came together and comforted one another.”
As brothers and family, the team can point to several moments throughout the season that strengthened its bond.
“We’ve been playing with each other for awhile,” Domenick said. “I think the thing that molded us together as a team is the Florida trip. We really bonded. We had our own rooms and it was a great trip.”
New Castle took a trip to Florida to participate in the KSA Orlando Tournament in mid-December. When the boys weren’t having fun at Universal Studios, they found time to play some basketball, taking home a tournament victory with wins over Cypress Creek (Fla.) and Anchorage Christian (Alaska).
“Like Brandon said, the Florida trip really helped out a lot with bringing the team together,” Anderson agreed. “I guess you kind of grow close with everyone by playing so many games and traveling so much in the summer together. I don’t know, we kind of just became brothers at some point.”
THE HEAT IS ON
Coach Blundo points to heated practices setting an early standard for his team’s performance that lasted throughout the season.
“I do think it’s the practices and the way these guys battle against each other and the ability to do that and really go at each other hard,” he said. “A near-fight in practice isn’t abnormal for us. It would appear like it never happened as soon as the play is over or as soon as the practice is over because they understand. They get the competitive element of practice every single day. Those are the things that are special. I think the other thing is when you put that much time in together and hard work together and know what each and every one of them have been through, it creates a bond you can’t break.”
With a grueling taste for competition on the court, the ’Canes balance that by keeping a light demeanor off the court. New Castle isn’t without its share of jokers on the squad, with Drew Allen and senior guard Antonio Rudolph seemingly taking the lead.
“One day I walk in the locker room, and we were waiting for the girls team to get off the floor,” Blundo said. “Antonio, he was waiting at the dry-erase board, imitating me, doing my pre-game speech. All the guys were on their stools sitting up and listening to him and he was smacking the board and pointing his finger and he didn’t know I walked in. It was something to see.”
Allen says he’s misunderstood as a cutup, looking at it from a different perspective.
“We have a lot of clowns on the team, but me, I’m not a clown, I just laugh a lot,” he joked. “There’s people like Tyler (Fitzpatrick), Levar (Ware) and Antonio, those are the jokers.”
FRIENDS FOR LIFE
Best friends remember when they first met. The ’Canes players are no different. Keeping with a humorous theme, the boys looked back fondly on their origins.
“We knew all these guys from a young age playing basketball,” Rudolph said. “I didn’t know Shawn until sixth grade in football season when North Hill played Central. Brandon was our quarterback and threw about a 40-yard pass. I just burned Shawn and scored a touchdown.”
“The first people on the team I met were Stew and Drew. I met Stew because he was having a tough time with some kid on the football field,” junior forward Malik Hooker said with a smile. “Drew laughs, but he was watching him do it and wasn’t helping his brother.”
Anderson was eager to give a good-natured ribbing to Domenick because of his 5-foot-9 stature. After all, based on how they met, Anderson believes he had it coming.
“I moved to Arizona for two years. When I came back, I tried out for the sixth-grade basketball team. I came into practice, and we were scrimmaging. I go to make a move, and I get elbowed in the rib cage by a 4-2 little kid. I turn around and all my friends go, ‘yeah, that’s Brandon, that’s the kid we’ve been telling you about,’ ”Anderson chuckled. “So we didn’t start off on the right foot, but I ended up being on the team, and we ended up being great friends.”
New Castle’s success has given the team a certain amount of celebrity in the community, one it fully embraces.
“I think we give the community something to be proud of at New Castle and something to look forward to every Tuesday and Friday night,” Salzano said. “Last week, we went on a spirit march to George Washington with fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders. To see all those younger kids screaming for us and yelling for us, it’s really a great feeling.”
“It’s nice to be appreciated by so many people. You go to places and everybody is like ‘you play for the New Castle basketball team don’t you?’ They just sit there and talk to you and it’s the best feeling in the world,” Stew Allen said. “Like coach Blundo says, he comes to practice every day and tells us how his kids want to be just like Stew Allen or Brandon Domenick. It’s just a great feeling.”
The team performs not only on the court, but in the classroom, with seven regulars being honors students. For instance, Salzano has a 4.2 grade point average. Hooker had straight A’s in the last grading period. Anderson has a 3.7 GPA. The team’s academic success isn’t lost on their head coach.
“I love that young kids can look at these guys and say they want to be just like them. Not just because they’re great basketball players, but the way they represent with how great they do in school. We have a 3.31 overall team GPA, which is pretty amazing,” Blundo said. “Kids want to be like these kids and I can point to my son and my children and I can say, do it the way he does it. Do it the way Jesse does it, Shawn does it, Antonio does it. Do it how they do it.”
Aspirations to succeed off the court extend throughout the team. All players stated their intentions to further their education after high school is over. Anderson plans on attending and playing for Navy next year. Domenick will play for Gannon University in the fall. Salzano wishes to attend school for six years and become a pharmacist.
Rudolph summed up the collective thoughts of the team best stating, “I want to attend college, not only to play sports, but to get my education and become a better person.”
The ’Canes can’t help but to look at their time at New Castle High School and how it has shaped their lives.
“New Castle basketball to me is every time you put that jersey on, you know you’re going to go out and fight with your brothers,” Domenick said. “It’s formed me as a person and made me become such a better player and person. I thank my coaches and teammates for everything they’ve done for me.” “To me it means two things, together and toughness,” starting junior guard Anthony Richards said. “Wherever you go, you’re so proud to say you go to New Castle.”
Added Salzano, “New Castle basketball is a sense of pride. The memories we’ve made and the accomplishments we’ve had over these three years have been amazing. I’ll always remember and I’ll always be a Hurricane.”
(Don't forget — our full-color New Castle basketball player posters begin appearing in TODAY's edition! Get one!)