New Castle High boys basketball coach Ralph Blundo will be the first to tell you he wasn’t sure what he had with his 2017-18 team.
“You know, we came into the season with a lot of guys who had been with the program but not a lot of guys who had real experience,” Blundo said.
The Red Hurricane went through some early struggles, dropping four games and falling into third place in WPIAL Section 2-4A. Then the ‘Canes began to hit their stride.
From Jan. 26 until March 16, New Castle won 13 consecutive games including a 57-52 victory over rival Quaker Valley in the WPIAL championship game on March 3.
“I just think they were such a willing group,” Blundo said. “They understood who they were and where they wanted to be and they were willing to do the work to get there. They put in the time, effort and film study and it really paid off.”
The success started with star senior Marcus Hooker. The Ohio State football recruit averaged 15.8 points per game to lead the ‘Canes and was the third and final Hooker brother to complete his basketball career under Blundo.
“Marcus is a great athlete who plays really hard,” Blundo said. “You just don’t see that out of great athletes. I have a unique relationship with Marcus because of the relationship I have with the family and how young he was when he got with the team. But his growth was really as much as a person and a young man as it was a player.”
Then there was senior Lorenzo Gardner, who recovered from a torn ACL in the offseason to become one of New Castle’s most important players down the stretch.
“The work he put in was multi-faceted because it started with rehab and therapy,” Blundo said of Gardner. He wasn’t a great 3-point shooter his first three years, but he evolved into a solid shooter because he used his time wisely to improve his game while he was injured.”
Blundo also praised seniors Georgie Eggleston and Carrington Smith, who helped key the ‘Canes offense when Hooker struggled.
“Georgie was really good against specific matchups and then as the year went on he just became a better finisher,” Blundo said. “Carrington really shot the ball well for us on a team that only shot 27 percent. He was a guy that we couldn’t take off the floor because of what he brought offensively.”
Cahlil Dorman, a senior and the fifth starter for Blundo, sank two key free throws to clinch the WPIAL championship for the second straight year.
“Cahlil deserved it,” Blundo said. “We talked so much about earning the right to have success and deserving to have success and he earned it. He came to practice every day and worked hard and kept growing as a player.”
Lastly, Blundo singled out rotation player Anthony Bailey as the player who made the greatest improvements over the course of the year.
“Anthony had to find a feel for the game and he just kept accepting coaching and listening and getting better and before you know it we’re in an elimination game in the playoffs in the fourth quarter and I can’t take him out,” he said. “I really think his best days are still ahead of him.”
Blundo said that the blue-collar style of the team is what captured the hearts of fans.
“I think that the community fell in love with their grit and their toughness and their never-say-die attitude,” he said. “This is a community that’s about survival in a lot of ways and this group sort of embodied that.”