Saturday’s WPIAL Class 4A championship was New Castle’s sixth under head coach Ralph Blundo in his nine years.
It may have been the most unique, too.
The Red Hurricane graduated all five starters from last year’s title team, which overcame the loss of four graduating players before that campaign, too. So, putting together another title contender was a challenge given the roster turnover and lack of varsity experience entering the season.
However, New Castle found a way to secure its third WPIAL title in a row with a 60-54 win over Quaker Valley on Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.
“None have been like this, not even close. It’s been a lot. It’s been a completely different year for me, taking a completely new group of kids with inexperienced seniors, a couple freshmen and some sophomores and a brand-new player. It was a challenge all year for my staff and me. It was stressful. It’s been difficult — that’s probably the best way to say it,” Blundo said. “We just kept fighting and kept working with kids and hoping they continue to respond and learn. Sometimes when you’re young, you have to make mistakes before you can learn. We’ve made our share.
“Losing four starters the year before and five starters coming into this year, it’s a whole new group of kids who get to experience something special. That’s probably the best part of this whole thing.”
New Castle’s next win will be the 250th of Blundo’s head coaching career. In nine years guiding the ’Canes, they’ve gone 223-31, reached the WPIAL semifinals every season and claimed six championships. Overall, Blundo is 249-33 (88.3 winning percentage), which includes a 26-2 mark in one season at George Junior Republic.
This year’s WPIAL championship was the 13th in New Castle boys basketball history. That tied Farrell for most in WPIAL boys basketball history. The Steelers won 13 championships from 1951-92. The ’Canes’ claimed titles in 1927, ’36, ’82, ’93, ’97, ’98, ’99, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’17, ’18 and ’19.
While the Steelers left the WPIAL in 2005 for District 10, Blundo appreciates the significance of his program’s accomplishment.
“For someone like me, who grew up watching Farrell, Sharon, Aliquippa — the old Section 3, I am awfully proud of it,” he said. “The history of New Castle basketball matters to us. We’ve always kept a great connection to the past — always — because, I think once you create that disconnect, it’s hard to get that back. To win 13 championships and be there with Farrell? It’s Farrell. We’re proud of that.”
Blundo’s message to the New Castle players following the win over the Quakers was simple and to the point.
“How do you win a basketball game? Win more possessions over 32 minutes. Doesn’t matter when it happens. It doesn’t have to be the first six and it doesn’t have to be the middle six. It doesn’t matter how it happens. If you win more possessions over 32 minutes, you win the basketball game. You kept your composure enough throughout the course of the game. We can be better. This is for life. Nobody, NOBODY, can take this away from you.”
Following a brief applause, he followed it up with, “I think we’ll find a way to make room for another banner.”
The ’Canes made a key switch on defense to rally from a 41-31 deficit. New Castle went to a 1-2-2.
“That’s been a staple here,” Blundo said of the 1-2-2. “If you use it too much, teams sit in seams and get you. We were able to spot it at the right time. It just slowed down (Quaker Valley’s Ryan) Stowers a little bit. It was a big part of the game in terms of us coming back.”
New Castle and Quaker Valley battled back and forth throughout the first half. The biggest lead was three on three separate occasions, all by Quaker Valley (16-13, 18-15, 20-17).
The Quakers held a 28-26 halftime advantage.
“I think both teams were playing well and doing what they do,” Blundo said of the first 16 minutes. “We were fortunate to make a couple of shots early; they made some plays as well.
“This was a very even first half.”
Said New Castle freshman Michael Wells, “We felt pretty good. We were in a good position.”
GETTING IT DONE
Senior Drew Cox led the ’Canes in scoring with 20 points and his younger brother Sheldon Cox (sophomore) added 15.
“They both made big shots and timely shots. Both had big moments,” Blundo said of Drew and Sheldon. “Some had moments were they weren’t perfect, but they were steady.
“Drew was a calming force and Sheldon made timely shots. Sheldon has an uncommon disposition for a sophomore; he plays hard. He’s calm and he believes in himself.”
New Castle’s bid for a three-peat was up in the air as Quaker Valley pushed the lead to 41-31 with 1:44 remaining in the third quarter.
“We just had a really hard time staying in front of Stowers, particularly in transition,” Blundo said. “They just kept scoring and we went cold.
“The offensive rebounds were missing for us. When they went up 10, they continued their pace and we went cold.”