It was a cold January night, but Dewey Lutz wanted to get his ill wife out of the house. Florence Lutz had been feeling a little better and her 81-year-old husband thought he would take his 80-year-old wife somewhere to lift her spirits.
By 6:30 p.m., the Lutzes were in the bleachers at New Castle High School's gymnasium. They had plenty of company.
For the past few months, this is where 2,000 New Castle people might show up once or twice a week for an uplifting experience.
The town of New Castle is buzzing these days about the New Castle High School boys basketball team. The Red Hurricanes have a 20-0 record and their dominance has been so impressive that they have a chance to go down as one of the best teams from Western Pennsylvania in the past few decades.
But the love affair between the town and the team is the story within the story. It is a great example of what a high school sports team can still do for a small Western Pennsylvania town that has been hit hard by the loss of industries and population over the past 40 to 50 years.
New Castle sold more than 500 season tickets this season, which is practically unheard of for most high schools in the state. New Castle's gym has a capacity of 2,700 and it has been packed, or close to full, for most games. It is not unusual for maybe 500 fans -- young and old -- to attend a road game.
"There is not too much to do in this town anymore," said Sam Flora, New Castle's athletic director and a 1970 New Castle graduate. "We don't have the industry, so what people do is come and follow these kids."
Dewey Lutz is a 1949 New Castle graduate who estimates he has been a season-ticket holder for 50 years of New Castle basketball.
"This is the best team I ever saw," Lutz said. "Just their quickness and the way they play. I've never seen a team press like they can."
New Castle is the home of famous Zambelli Fireworks. But the basketball team has lit a different fuse. The love for the 'Canes is effusive.
"It has definitely sparked this town. I've seen people come to games that I haven't seen in years," said Lutz. "I'm at a McDonald's every morning at 6:30 with some friends. So many times the talk is all about New Castle basketball."
Lutz is one of the "old-timers" who have been watching New Castle sports for decades. Another is 85-year-old Michael Russo, a season-ticket holder for more than 30 years who usually sits in the front row of the gym across from the team benches.
"I think the people here just really like the way this team plays and the way they act," Russo said. "They really seem to like each other and that's important. I think coaching has a lot to do with it, too."
Denny Flora is a 1995 New Castle graduate who is now a sixth-grade teacher in the New Castle district. He also owns the 26 Bar and Grill in New Castle. Business at his restaurant and some other places in town sometimes picks up after basketball games.
"There are a lot of diehards in New Castle and they live for going to high school football and basketball games a couple nights a week," said Denny Flora, the nephew of Sam Flora. "Sometimes the town is dead because everyone is at the game now."
Having a town show its support for a high school team is not something new for New Castle. The school used to have a rich football tradition and it wasn't uncommon for New Castle to have 10,000 to 15,000 fans for a home football game in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s.
From 1996-98, New Castle had a great basketball run, winning three consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA titles. The 1998 team was terrific and had a following even bigger than this year's team. Sam Flora said more than 1,000 season tickets were sold that year for a team that suffered a crushing defeat in the PIAA semifinals.
Ralph Blundo is in his third year as New Castle's boys basketball coach and is a former standout New Castle player. Blundo has developed talented players and uses them wisely. But he is also known as a disciplinarian. He is the high school principal.
"This is just an old steel town trying to survive, but there is something special about it," said Blundo, who lives in New Castle with his wife, Katie, and four children, ages 2 to 9. "One thing about our town is I think it really respects the blue-collar approach because it's an old steel town. I think the people here really respect our style of play, the toughness of our kids and how hard they play. I think it's easy to fall in love with this group of kids and I don't mind saying that.
"A lot of coaches talk about toughness and team, but I think our kids really show that. I've had so many people say, 'We really appreciate the way you represent this town and community.' God, I can't tell you how that makes you feel."
New Castle is extremely athletic and plays at a breakneck pace on offense. But the offense is fueled by terrific defensive pressure. The Red Hurricanes trap all over the court and their speed and quick hands cause havoc.
New Castle averages 80 points a game and its average margin of victory is 28 points. The Red Hurricanes have defeated all 20 opponents this season by at least 16 points.
New Castle has a small team, with the tallest starter being Shawn Anderson, a 6-foot-3 senior forward and a Naval Academy recruit who averages 20 points a game. Anderson is considered one of the top players in the WPIAL.
The other two senior starters are guard Brandon Domenick and forward Antonio Rudolph. Domenick is a Gannon University recruit (NCAA Division II). Junior guard Anthony Richards and junior forward Malik Hooker round out the top five. Hooker is one of the WPIAL's top juniors.
All but Rudolph were starters on last year's team that won the WPIAL Class AAA championship before moving up to Class AAAA this season. New Castle is 47-1 the past two seasons and the only loss was to Montour in the second round of the PIAA playoffs last year.
The Red Hurricanes won a WPIAL title last year with a perfect record. If they go undefeated through this year's WPIAL playoffs, they will become the first team in at least 50 years to win two consecutive titles with an undefeated record.
But the town folks are talking about more than a WPIAL title this year. Many believe New Castle has a legitimate shot at a state championship. The title game will be played in March in Hershey. But some traditional powers, such as Chester and Lower Merion, are strong once again on the eastern side of the state. Plus, there are the WPIAL playoffs still to negotiate.
"I talk to our guys a lot about that if you look in that spotlight too long, you lose focus," Blundo said. "A lot of people are telling these kids how great they are. I think I'm the only guy in Western Pennsylvania who is telling them they're not any good."
The expectations, though, are grand. The 1998 team's overtime loss to McDowell in the state semifinals crushed the town. That game is still talked about because New Castle blew an 18-point lead late in the third quarter.
"They better go all the way this year," Russo said, "because I know a lot of people who are making reservations for Hershey."
For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1975. Twitter @mwhiteburgh First Published February 8, 2013 5:00 AM