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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

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.”

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