New Castle celebrates its state championship basketball team

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NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- The children assembled at Lockley Kindergarten Center seem to understand that the young men standing in front of them have accomplished something special. The kids are crammed onto the bleachers inside a small gym, covered in red and black garb, clapping their hands and stomping their feet and, mostly, giggling with delight at their good fortune. Yes, the alphabet and basic arithmetic can wait for another day.

The kindergartners are too young to know what people say about their town, some of it true and some of it exaggerated like any narrative that picks up steam. The outsiders say nothing good ever comes out of New Castle anymore, a statement that stings because this was once a place that thrived on the production of goods and the quality men who made them.

Maybe someday, well down the road, the Lockley boys and girls will retain a faint recollection of this celebration, of the middle-aged man wearing a white dress shirt and loosened tie who is doing everything he can to leave a lasting imprint on their young minds.

New Castle basketball team brings home state crown

New Castle celebrates its state championship basketball team with a parade and autograph signing. (Video by Andrew Rush; 3/28/2014)

"I want you to scream and yell as loud as you possibly can," Ralph Blundo says, "because you're so proud of these guys! You ready?!"

Mr. Blundo, the 41-year-old head coach of the newly crowned state champion New Castle High boys basketball team, begins the countdown. 1 ... 2 ... 3! And, for 10 seconds, the scene is a child's dream, a license to make noise, necks craned to the sky, mouths gaping, eyes closed, the beautiful sound of a city's future united.

Ever since the Red Hurricanes took the Class AAAA PIAA championship Saturday night in Hershey with a 52-39 victory against La Salle College High School of Philadelphia, completing a remarkable 31-0 season, Mr. Blundo has been leading his players around town from school to school with a simple message: Greatness can happen here if you just believe it.

"The iron is hot," Mr. Blundo said earlier in his office at the school, where he is assistant principal, "and we're trying, while the kids can really be influenced by these guys, to get them out there talking to them."

On the gym floor, he has quieted the rowdy bunch of kindergartners. Are they listening? He tells them that the New Castle team is not special because they won the state. He touts their good grades and the fact that all of his seniors are going to college next year. He says his players do things the right way.

"So when you think about saying something to someone that might hurt their feelings," Mr. Blundo says, "here's what I want you to know: The Red Hurricanes never do that. Never. And that's what I want you guys to understand: If you do things right, if you work hard in school, and you care about people, some day you may be standing up here just like that, as the toast of the town, and as state champions, from New Castle, Pennsylvania."

To Mr. Blundo, the last clause is the most important. From New Castle, Pennsylvania. The grandson of Lebanese and Italian immigrants who came to this industrial city built an hour northwest of Pittsburgh, little "Ralphie" Blundo was born into the last years of his hometown's prosperity. His father, also Ralph, owned a sporting goods store in downtown. That meant that Ralphie got all the best gear -- a Jack Lambert jersey would stick out in his mind decades later.

Sports and industry were everything to New Castle, and they went hand in hand. The Red Hurricanes were tougher, and they'd proven it each fall on the gridiron, winning 11 WPIAL football championships. In 1982, basketball joined the party, going all the way to Hershey before losing in the championship game. Still, New Castle held a parade for its runner-up boys, and 9-year-old Ralphie Blundo would never forget it.

Maybe that's because, right around the same time, thousands of New Castle workers lost their jobs, and that meant people didn't have money to buy his father's sporting goods. One morning, Ralphie's mother left him a note in his lunch box, telling him that his daddy's store was closing.

"I was crushed," Mr. Blundo says. "You could feel things changing."

After college, he'd settle back in New Castle, and he'd make sure that his future wife, Katie, who grew up in Pittsburgh's affluent North Hills, would join him here. Before he'd even popped the question, Mr. Blundo bought a home on Fairfield Avenue, three doors from the house he grew up in, where his parents still lived. When he purchased the ring, he took Katie to the home and proposed to her. When she said yes, he revealed: "This is your house."

"I wouldn't say I trapped her, but ... " Mr. Blundo says, laughing.

He took over the Red Hurricanes before the 2010-11 season. In the past three years, New Castle went 87-2 by playing a full-court, up-tempo style and in 2014 brought home the school's first football or boys basketball state championship.

About 5,000 of the 19,000 residents remaining in New Castle went to Hershey for the game, including 365 students packed into eight buses. An hour after the Red Hurricanes won, around 10:30 p.m., church bells rang out in unison all over New Castle.

It's been a nonstop whirlwind, culminating in Thursday's autograph session for players and a parade through downtown. Erica Nerti, a first-grade teacher, brought her young daughter, Calina, to get autographs. Mrs. Nerti is a New Castle lifer and wouldn't have it any other way.

"I didn't even apply to any other school district," Mrs. Nerti says. "Because New Castle has my heart. My husband wanted to move to a township, and I said, no, my daughter is going to New Castle. I have it in me."

Mr. Blundo likes to say that those who stay in New Castle are fighters who are waiting for the good times to come back. For now, the Red Hurricanes represent a return to past glory and renewed hope for the future.

"I can't believe that we're doing this right now," said New Castle senior Anthony Richards. "I really can't. We're just high school kids. I don't know how many people are here to get our autograph. I'm just a normal kid. I don't understand it. Maybe that's how much sports means to this town. I'll never forget this with my teammates."

At 6 p.m. Thursday, the main drag of downtown, Washington Street, shut down. Police and fire trucks led a procession, their sirens blaring. Behind them, the marching band played and banged their drums. Then came the Red Hurricanes, sitting on bales of hay in the extended bed of a truck, soaking in the love of several hundred onlookers. They passed a florist, a bank, a few bars and restaurants and three abandoned storefronts, winding up in the town square.

There, flanked by the YMCA, First Christian Church and the United States Post Office, a scene of fading Americana played out as a light rain fell on a gray day. What was once a burgeoning small city was now just a big shrinking town, but Mr. Blundo wasn't focused on what wasn't there anymore. He addressed the people, acknowledging that they had seen plenty of bad times, but his presence on that stage showed that stubbornness and loyalty can pay dividends.

When Mr. Blundo ran out of words to say, his players and their fans joined in one final chant: We-are! N-C! We-are! N-C!

J. Brady McCollough: or on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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