South Xtra: 50 years ago, West Mifflin North was king of WPIAL football
November 14, 2013 12:00 AM
West Mifflin North yearbook
The 1963 West Mifflin North Vikings celebrate their WPIAL Class AA championship in their locker room at Forbes Field.
By Jimmy Dunn / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Almost two months ago, 20 men, all in their mid-60s returned to their high school alma mater to be recognized for their accomplishments on the football field 50 years ago.
West Mifflin North High School, which consolidated with sister school West Mifflin South to form West Mifflin Area in 1984, was just a fledgling school and program in 1963 -- only the fourth year of the school's existence.
But as the 1963-64 school year -- and the high school football season -- was about to begin, little did these fellows know that they were about to embark on a historic season.
Of course, that little piece of history they earned -- winning the WPIAL Class AA football championship -- would be overshadowed just a week later by a tragic event that rocked the nation ... and the world.
The most historic event of 1963 was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which took place on Nov. 22, exactly a week after the Vikings had their day in the sun ... or should that be night in the moonlight?
"We thought our team would do well that year," recalled Tom Phillips, the Vikings' backup quarterback to starter Karl Tribelhorn. "But after a 7-7 tie against our neighbor, Duquesne High, in a non-conference game, adjustments were made for the [league] opener."
Back in those days, for a team to reach the WPIAL championship game, it had to go undefeated and untied in the regular season against teams in the same classification. And even then that might not be enough because if there were more than two teams to go unbeaten in the same classification, the Gardner Point System was used to determine the top two.
So although the Vikings could only tie their next-door neighbors from Duquesne -- West Mifflin North actually used Duquesne's stadium as its home field back then -- the blemish didn't cost them because Duquesne was a Class A school.
At that time "AA" was the large-school classification, "A" comprised the mid-sized schools and Class B encompassed the small-enrollment schools.
Following the opening-week tie, coach Dick Scherrbaum and his staff did some fine tuning and the Vikings set sail on a productive and historic season.
Next up for West Mifflin North was another neighboring rival, Munhall. The teams had played to a scoreless tie the season before, but this year the Vikings would have their way with the outmanned Indians, winning, 33-0.
Two more decisive victories followed as West Mifflin dispatched of Thomas Jefferson, 47-6, and Baldwin, 21-7.
Next up were easy victories against Shaler, 34-0, Gateway, 47-13, and Elizabeth Forward, 36-13, followed by a 14-7 tussle against Penn Hills and a tense regular-season finale, a 14-13 win against McKees-port.
Even then, Vikings fans had to hold their collective breaths because two other schools, Butler and Washington, were also vying for a spot in the title game, but the Prexies wound up coming up short of the needed Gardner Points and the Vikings were headed to the championship game.
Heroes that season were many. In addition to Tribelhorn, the late Harry "Skip" Orszulak was another standout who went on to an excellent career as a wide receiver at Pitt before becoming a dentist.
Halfback Billy Williams and fullbacks Norm Jenkins and Rick Broman completed the backfield.
Starting linemen included ends Bill Luksis and Jim Torok, tackles Ray Radakovich and Rich Jakubovics, guards Anthony Smith and Tom Omasta and center Dennis Fleming.
"We all grew up together and got along well. That carried over to our team," said Bob "Klu" Kameg, who was a starting linebacker for the Vikings that season. "A humorous aspect added to our team unity. We'd all sing, 'You Are My Sunshine' on the bus rides to the game."
Kameg laughed after recalling their little "tradition."
Another contributor to the Vikings' success that season was Ned Mervos, 82, who was an assistant on Scherrbaum's staff.
"We got those kids from Homeville and Edison junior highs," Mervos said. "They were easy to coach because they followed directions ... and they were tough."
Mervos, incidentally, moved on to the district's other high school, West Mifflin South, and coached the 1966 team there to an undefeated, untied season, but the Spartans lacked enough Gardner Points to advance to the WPIAL Class B title game that year.
The undefeated 1963 season propelled West Mifflin North into the WPIAL championship game against Butler. And venerable old Forbes Field would be the site on Friday night, Nov. 15.
"It was really something being in the locker room and seeing the names of the Pirates and the Steelers," Phillips recalled.
"And it was even more surprising to come out and play before more than 20,000 people," he said, another indication of the popularity of high school football in Western Pennsylvania.
Butler, under coach Art Bernardi, who was in just his second season as coach of the Golden Tornado, had one of its strongest teams. It featured Bill "Tank" Rettig, a battering ram of a fullback who would go on to play at Penn State, quarterback Mike Zaccari and a junior defensive back/backup quarterback by the name of Terry Hanratty, who would later finish third in the 1968 Heisman Trophy voting as Notre Dame's quarterback and also play on a couple of Super Bowl-winning teams for the Steelers (1974 and '75).
In a defensive struggle, as expected, the Vikings came away victorious, 12-6, in front of an announced crowd of 20,371 fans on a chilly November night. The game was tied, 6-6, at halftime and for the longest time, fans thought they might be witnessing a stalemate that would result in a co-championship -- there was no overtime provision to break ties back then.
But about midway through the fourth quarter, the Vikings pounced on a Butler fumble at the Golden Tornado 11. Moments later, Tribelhorn found Luksis in the end zone, catching a pass that Hanratty had deflected.
A monumental celebration ensued that featured car-horn tooting stretching from Oakland back to the new high school building off Commonwealth Avenue near Kennywood Park.
Fast forward to Sept. 20, 2013 -- a half-century later. The game between West Mifflin and Albert Gallatin contained an appealing nostalgic segment.
"After we were recognized individually, the current team raised their helmets skyward in a salute. It was memorable," Phillips said.
It was certainly one that the 20 members of the '63 team in attendance appreciated.
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