Varsity Xtra: New Castle can carve unique spot in history


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Coach Ralph Blundo drills his New Castle boys basketball team often about "focus." Don't believe all the accolades. It's about this day only, and the next opponent only.

Don't lose focus.

But the WPIAL championships are here, so the Red Hurricanes can look out on the WPIAL historical horizon and set their sights where no team has ventured. They can see clearly now the reign has come to possible fruition. They can focus -- on legendary status.

The WPIAL crowned its first WPIAL basketball champion 104 years ago. There have been 252 champions in four different classifications since then. No team has ever charted a perfect course through a WPIAL season two years in a row. New Castle could be the first.

Now Blundo is letting his team focus on a big picture.

"I said to them at halftime [of the WPIAL semifinals] that two more great quarters and you'll have the opportunity to do something no one else has ever done," Blundo said.

New Castle plays Hampton for the WPIAL Class AAAA championship at 9 Saturday night at Palumbo Center. The Red Hurricanes could be singing U2 when it's all said and done -- Undefeated Twice.

New Castle won last year's WPIAL Class AAA championship with an undefeated record (before losing in the PIAA playoffs) and the Red Hurricanes are 25-0 this season.

"Their eyes got big when I told them," Blundo said about the possible perfect two-year WPIAL run. "I just wanted to give them something to think about going to bed at night."

Hampton will certainly be a formidable foe. But if New Castle wins the title, it will be the greatest two-year run, at least on the WPIAL level. Not the first back-to-back champion in WPIAL history (Butler in 1914-15) or the most recent (Gateway in 2011-12) were undefeated both years when they won titles.

Numerous others have won two titles in a row in, but haven't been perfect champions on the WPIAL level. A few have come awfully close, losing one game in two years.

Uniontown and Midland both had a few of the greatest teams in WPIAL history from 1963-65, but both had one loss over the course of those two seasons and neither won back-to-back titles.

Most certainly WPIAL basketball today isn't like the glory days of the league from the 1950s-70s.

"But how can you have two undefeated [WPIAL] seasons and not be considered great?" said John Sarandrea, a former New Castle head coach. "I don't care who you are playing. That is an unbelievable and remarkable accomplishment."

At New Castle, Sarandrea won three consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA titles from 1997-99 and his 1999 team was considered one of the best in the WPIAL in the past 20 years and climbed as high as No. 6 in the country in USA Today rankings. The '98-99 teams lost four games over two seasons, but only one to a WPIAL team.

Sarandrea, now the superintendent of Sharon City Schools, has watched New Castle play a few times this year.

"I don't know if people really understand the magnitude of going undefeated two years in a row, even if it is in the WPIAL. That's pretty hard to do," Sarandrea said. "If they do that, how could you not say they're one of the best teams?"

Legendary former Blackhawk coach John Miller had some terrific two-year runs during his days with the Cougars, who won three WPIAL titles in a row from 1990-92. The '91 and '92 teams were 62-2. The only losses were to Perry in the PIAA semifinals in 1991 and to Baltimore Dunbar in the first game of the 1992 season. Dunbar was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time.

The 1992 Blackhawk team was considered one of the best in the WPIAL in the past few decades. Future North Carolina player Dante Calabria was the team's star. The Cougars scored 100 points or more 11 times that season, averaged 90 points, defeated opponents by an average of 35.9 and had three players with more than 60 3-pointers.

Then Blackhawk came back and went 32-1 and 30-3 from 1998-2000. Miller, now retired, believes New Castle might deserve a spot in WPIAL lore -- if they win.

"I think they could play with a lot of the great teams," Miller said. "I think they're kind of the exact same style of some of those teams we had. New Castle plays terrific defense and they have some long-range shooters on offense. Inside, they're very, very athletic. They're not very big, but so what. They have that nasty toughness about them, too."

The 1967 Ambridge team that featured four Division I college players is considered possibly the greatest in WPIAL history, but the Bridgers didn't have a two-year run like New Castle. The 1964 and '65 Midland teams featured two future NBA players in Simmie Hill and Norm Van Lier, and the '65 team is considered one of the WPIAL's greatest.

"When you have a team with two [future] NBA players, I don't know how this [New Castle] team would do against them," Sarandrea said.

The 1964 Uniontown team finished undefeated, had a future NBA player in Stu Lantz and two future NFL players in Ray Parson and Bennett Gregory. The 1965 Uniontown team took a 52-game winning streak into the WPIAL semifinals before being upset by Aliquippa.

"Every one of these eras is different," Miller said. "The WPIAL now is much different than it used to be. Right now, you don't have to worry too much about the City League teams in the state playoffs. It used to be that getting by a Fifth Avenue or Schenley was a monumental task in the state playoffs.

"But for New Castle to go through the WPIAL two years and be undefeated, that would be hard to do."

In the mid 1980s, Washington had a great run of success, winning three WPIAL titles in a row Over the course of the 1983-84 and 84-85 seasons, Washington had a 52-game winning streak that tied Uniontown (1963-65) for the longest in WPIAL history. In two seasons (1984-86), Washington was 54-2.

"I haven't seen New Castle in person, but I know that not only are they winning, but they are winning big. That's impressive," said Ron Faust, Washington's retired coach. "I think when New Castle looks back on this years from now, they'll see how remarkable this is.

"To go through two WPIAL seasons without a loss? I sit here now and look at not only high school, but college basketball. To think any team could be that consistent is just unbelievable. You're bound to have a bad night or maybe even more than one."

But in reality, New Castle's spot in WPIAL lore has yet to be determined.

"I think the big thing for them would be to move on and win the state, too," Miller said. "But it is fun to talk about all these different teams from different eras and all the different wrinkles."

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Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com First Published March 1, 2013 5:00 AM


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