New Castle News

April 7, 2014

Photo Gallery, Story: Former Wampum basketball players who won state titles see common threads with ’Canes

Joe Sager
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Once a month, they come back to the town where it all started.

A large group gathers at Jata’s Diner for some breakfast and to catch up on recent events, grandchildren and talk about the memories they made just down Main Street at Wampum High School.

Even though the tiny school closed in 1961, the experiences are still fresh in the minds of its attendees, especially for those who played on Wampum’s storied basketball teams. The Indians were a powerhouse and won three state championships: 1955, ’58, ’60.

Over the past couple of years, the New Castle High boys basketball team has become a topic of discussion for the Wampum breakfast club. The Red Hurricane (31-0) became Lawrence County’s first unbeaten basketball state champ since the Indians (31-0) achieved that feat in 1955.

The former Wampum players were thrilled to follow New Castle’s run over the last three years that resulted in three-straight WPIAL championships and this year’s Class AAAA state crown.

“I got several people to go up to the games with me,” Galbreath said. “We’ve had a lot of different people come watch and we all walked away shaking our heads (in disbelief).”

Galbreath, who played on Wampum’s 1958 state title team, is not surprised by much on the basketball floor. After all, he won 634 games during his 45-year college coaching career.

“That New Castle team took my breath away,” he said. “There was a spirit of winning and success on that team. Obviously, nobody could stop that run. I think what Wampum had going, I saw similar things in New Castle.

“They could win anytime, in any period of history. Their toughness really stood out and I say it respectfully. They are tough and competitive; they are not dirty, and teams played hard against them. New Castle and Hampton played as hard as possible against each other and there was no fighting or anything. They respected the game and did it the right way. Then, with the way they get into defense, took care of the ball and battled on the boards – it’s amazing.”

SIMILAR STYLES

One reason Wampum’s players enjoyed following the ’Canes was that they saw some similarities in playing style despite the game’s evolution over the years (3-point line, dunks, etc.)

“They remind me a lot of like we were. We were small, but we were battlers like they are. They don’t give an inch. I really admire them,” said Larry Haswell, who was Galbreath’s teammate on the 1958 title team. “As a team, we were the same way. Our team, it was a different scorer stepping up every night just like New Castle. A good, well-balanced team can be a championship team. I think they did fabulous. They are faster and could jump higher, but they did remind me a lot of our team.”

Haswell was busy this winter. In between watching his grandson, Ty Haswell, who was a senior on the Neshannock boys basketball team, and his granddaughter, McKenzie Stelter, a Mohawk senior who won a WPIAL diving championship and PIAA silver, he got some chances to watch New Castle play in person.

“They played good defense and took whatever the other teams gave to them and attacked teams’ weaknesses,” he said. “Their natural ability is great. They are all good students, too.”

Don Hennon helped lead Wampum to its first state crown in 1955, which capped his illustrious high school career. He set a WPIAL career year scoring record (1951-55) of 2,376 points that lasted until Valley’s Tom Pipkins (2,838 points) surpassed it in 1993. Hennon, who went on to an All-American career at Pitt, was impressed with the ’Canes.

“They did very, very well. I am glad they won,” he said. “Seeing what New Castle did brings back a lot of memories.”

The 1955 Indians were one of the state’s most-dominant teams. The squad averaged 101 points per game en route to the Class B state championship.

“It’s interesting. Even though our team scored a lot of points, our whole emphasis was on defense. We were trying to hold every team under 50 points and we did. Our opponents averaged 47 points per game,” Hennon said. “I saw New Castle play on TV. They are good. I really like the way they play. They play something like we did, in terms of a pressuring defense the whole game, from beginning to end. You have to have a fairly good defensive team to go very far. You can’t rely entirely on it, but that has to be a part of your team.”

COACHING CONNECTION

Even though more than half a century separates Wampum’s last title from New Castle’s, there is a common connection – and a huge one. Ralph Blundo, the ’Canes’ head coach, is part of the Wampum coaching tree.

L. Butler Hennon, Don’s father, was the mastermind of those Wampum championship teams. He produced a 521-146 record in 28 years leading the Indians. When Wampum consolidated with the Ellwood City School District in 1961, he coached basketball at Lincoln High and produced a 106-112 mark in 10 seasons there before his retirement in 1971. His overall mark was 627-258.

An innovative coach, some of his unique training techniques were featured in the January 1958 issue of Life magazine and reportedly adopted by the Soviet Union’s Olympic basketball team.

Some of his former players went on to successful coaching careers of their own, including John Swogger — who captured a pair of state titles in seven years at Mercer and then won 238 games in 12 seasons at Altoona — and Galbreath.

One of the many players Galbreath coached at Westminster was Blundo, who spent his junior and senior years there after transferring from Monmouth.

“It is an interesting connection,” Don Hennon said. “The way the Wampum and New Castle teams play is very similar.”

Blundo guided the ’Canes to three-straight unbeaten WPIAL championships in addition to this year’s state title. In his four years leading New Castle, Blundo is 107-10. Overall, he has a sparkling 133-12 (91.7 winning percentage) career mark. He was 26-2 in one season (1998-99) at George Junior Republic in Grove City.

“He did it his way,” Galbreath said. “He is not a carbon copy of Ron Galbreath. Ralph deserves the credit.”

Nevertheless, Blundo cites the lessons learned from Galbreath as forming part of his coaching foundation. The two men talk regularly, but Galbreath explains he didn’t have anything revolutionary to tell Blundo.

“I wish I had some special insight I could give him, but I don’t,” he said with a laugh. “Ralph Blundo did a marvelous job. The only thing I could tell him was to keep doing what he was doing. If I were giving out grades, Ralph would get an A-plus. I am so proud of him and New Castle for all the hard work they did.

“What they did was magical; it was amazing. It was fascinating to watch. They got better, better and better as the season progressed,” he continued. “I’d watch from a coaching perspective and try to figure out what they could do better. Honestly, I could not give Ralph Blundo any suggestions. He has been masterful as a coach making all the right decisions. And, he has a great coaching staff, too.”

Larry Haswell credits Blundo for fostering a team-first approach.

“I have followed those kids all the way up since my grandson played against them when he was younger. I think Coach Blundo has done a very good job with them,” he said. “I did a lot of coaching and I know it’s hard to get kids to play together. That’s what it takes to be a championship team.”

SPECIAL SOMETHING

There’s another intangible shared by those Indians teams and the ’Canes – a motivation to overcome a devastating season-ending loss the season before.

New Castle advanced to the PIAA semifinals last season, but fell to Lower Merion. Wampum’s 1957 squad was undefeated (26-0), too, but fell to Shannock Valley in the WPIAL championship game to end its season. At that time, only one WPIAL team advanced to the PIAA tournament.

It’s a loss that still stings.

“You don’t forget that stuff,” Larry Haswell said. “We had a very good team that year.”

Like New Castle’s 2013 team, that ’57 Indians squad graduated multiple key starters. However, both were able to overcome those losses to claim state crowns the next year.

“I think New Castle had a lot of determination. Last year, they got to that semifinal and lost. I think New Castle came back maybe not as talented on paper, but very, very, very much determined to complete the job. My senior year we were similar to that. We were very young and we had great chemistry. We came back with a very determined effort, had a great season and won a state championship with not as good a team on paper as the year before. I think New Castle had the chip on its shoulder and was determined to succeed.”

Don Hennon experienced that determination his senior year in ’55 as those Indians finally broke through and won the program’s first WPIAL and state crowns.

“I played on a couple good teams. That last one, that was the best one. What set it apart, we were determined. All the players were focused completely on doing what they had to do,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something that gives you that desire. That’s exactly how that team was and how New Castle was. I am happy to have been a part of it.”

LASTING IMPRESSION

The lessons learned during Wampum’s run paid off for the players in and out of athletics. Many of them went on to successful careers, including Don Hennon, who turned down a pro basketball offer to become a surgeon.

“I think basketball and winning is important; it teaches you a lot. I think the people who are coaches are more than just that – they are the leaders. They are basically teachers,” he said. “If you have good ones and they teach you right, there’s no limit for how far you can go and how much you can succeed.”

Larry Haswell agrees: “I have to give Coach Hennon a lot of credit. He wanted us to treat people with respect. He sort of made basketball like life; if you work hard and do good, you’ll be successful. A lot of his coaching was talking.”

Galbreath knows those life lessons will pay off for the ’Canes, too.

“The things those New Castle guys are learning, many of those will not only serve them well just for their education, but also for their job endeavors and any problems they may have in life. I think that New Castle spirit can help carry them through,” he said. “Without a doubt, when I talk about Wampum, Butler Hennon was the guy who made it happen and Buzz Ridl at Westminster. Anybody who gives me any credit, I tell them I was doing stuff those two taught us and shared with us. Those are the two guys who shaped my life.

“To me, it is a tremendous asset for the city of New Castle to have Ralph Blundo as a coach,” he continued. “He has done things the right way. I think all the guys who ever played basketball or coached there, they are so proud of what Ralph has accomplished.”

INSPIRATION

The inspiration has a domino effect. Even those who may not have any direct interaction with the players of coaches of those Wampum and New Castle teams felt the positive effects. It’s one reason why the fan support was so big for those squads.

“When we had games, there were not enough people in town to protect the bank, I can tell you that,” Don Hennon said with a laugh.

“I think they really are going to have a good future. They are all excellent athletes. I think they were on the right track. They set great examples for younger fans,” Larry Haswell said. “I remember watching Don Hennon’s team go undefeated. We all looked up them. They were heroes. They inspired us.

“The way people follow New Castle was how Wampum was followed. I think those boys did wonders. They were battlers. Winning a state championship is not easy. To get where they are, you have to put in a lot of time and dedication. I hope they really enjoy it. I’d love to meet them.”

The ’Canes have tried to use their success to influence younger generations. The players went around to various elementary schools to speak to students.

“Ralph has included everybody in that New Castle area in that program’s success,” Galbreath said. “He’s setting an example there that will filter down throughout the school and program for years.”

UNREAL TEAMS

Both programs carved out their own legacies. Wampum won three WPIAL and state titles and racked up a 12-straight section titles, which included 82-straight section wins from 1953-59.

New Castle produced three-straight undefeated WPIAL championships – a 78-0 run through the regular season and WPIAL tournaments, which is unprecedented. The program has four-straight section titles, 68-straight regular-season wins, 49-straight wins against WPIAL teams, 41-straight section wins, 35-straight home wins and victories in 87 of its last 89 games overall.

“It takes my breath away what those guys achieved at the Quad-A level,” Galbreath said. “I don’t think it’ll ever be matched.”

Don Hennon, too, is impressed.

“You do that, I don’t care who you’re playing. It’s extremely hard to do that,” he said. “It’s extremely hard to win the state. Not an easy to do. The other teams are determined just as much as you are. It becomes a real battle.

“You look at some of those things we both achieved and you don’t see many teams who could do that.”

Certainly, it serves for some good discussion over breakfast.