One of the objectives of a newspaper columnist is to make the reader think. The latter might not always agree with what is written, but if he or she at least thinks about the writer’s opinion and analyzes it objectively, then that’s mission accomplished.
What you don’t expect to happen is for the writer to make himself think and analyze his own words after they appear in print. That, however, is what happened with something I wrote in this space six weeks ago. While on the subject of sports being put on hiatus, I wrote, “I still love going to the games. I still walk into the ballpark, the football stadium or gymnasium sure I’m going to see something that night I’ve never seen before. It is that hope that keeps me going back.”
That left me pondering this question: What are the moments that I’ve seen only one time – a dominant individual performance, great athletic feat, bizarre situation, fantastic finish, dramatic comeback or just a terrific or oddball play – that I will forever remember?
Every sports fan has those highlight-reel moments that they will never forget, though some of the particulars might fade with age.
Thinking back, I’ve seen a nine-inning perfect game, a major leaguer hit for the cycle, a game-ending triple play, a four-overtime college football game, a player who hit a triple when the baseball traveled only 40 feet, a baseball team overcome a nine-run deficit to win a playoff game and dozens of crazy comebacks and buzzer-beaters.
There are a few things that I didn’t see as they happened that I regret missing. The top of that list is Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. If you were in Western Pennsylvania in 1972, and weren’t among the 50,000 or so people at Three Rivers Stadium that December afternoon, then you had to settle for listening to the playoff game against the Oakland Raiders on the radio and watching NBC’s replay the following afternoon because the game was blacked out in the Pittsburgh market. Can you imagine an NFL playoff game being blacked out these days?
Another one I missed was when Jefferson-Morgan’s Cary Kolat won his fourth state wrestling title. In the finals, he pulled off what is dubbed the “Kolat Flip.” If you don’t know what that is, then visit youtube.com and type in “Kolat Flip.” You’ll be amazed.
As for crazy comebacks, one that I’ve seen only on video and still find hard to believe was a 2016 football game between Ringgold and West Mifflin. Ringgold trailed by 12 points but scored two touchdowns in the final eight seconds to win. Anybody who was fortunate enough to see that will never forget it.
Of all the incredible one-of-a-kind moments, the one that sticks out as the most unlikely in a clutch situation was a shot made by Czar Walsh, a point guard of modest scoring credentials who played for the Ringgold basketball team in 1995. The Rams were playing a state quarterfinal game against Erie Cathedral Prep and were down by double digits early in the fourth quarter. Ringgold rallied but still trailed by three points in the closing seconds and had the basketball.
Walsh uncorked a running, desperation heave/shot from midcourt, at the sideline and in front of the Ringgold bench, that somehow went in the basket as time expired. The shot forced overtime and Ringgold eventually won in double overtime.
The Rams went on to win the state championship that year, thanks to Walsh’s Hail Mary basket in the quarterfinals.
“That shot was certainly the biggest basket I’ve seen,” Ringgold coach Phil Pergola said. “But when he let it go, I said, ‘It’s in.’ You could see that it was on target.
“That wasn’t the first time Czar made that shot. He did it every day. At the end of practice, he would go over to one of the side courts and shoot half-court shots until he made one.”
There was, however, even more to the story.
“Do you remember that Czar sprained his left ankle just before halftime of that game?,” Pergola asked. “It took three of us to carry him off the court. He didn’t start the third quarter because he was still in the locker room getting his ankle taped. We didn’t know if he could finish the game.”
Those are the kind of back stories that make the improbable even more amazing. So I decided to give a few well-known and longtime local coaches a call and let them reminisce about some of their most memorable and unique moments in sports, some good, some not so good.
The former boys basketball coach at Canon-McMillan and Peters Township, Bell had a career that spanned 31 years. Bell’s top moment involved a player who would go on to succeed him as the coach at Canon-Mac.
“One memory I will always have is from 2008, when I was the coach at Canon-McMillan. It was the first year we won a playoff game. Charles Murphy, who is now the head coach at Canon-McMillan, made a last-second shot that won a playoff game for us,” Bell said. “We didn’t go on to win a WPIAL or PIAA championship, but it was unique because of the circumstances. Charles made not one, but two, last-second shots that day.
“We were playing Shaler at North Allegheny. We had the ball at the end of the second quarter, and we had the ball at the baseline and had to go the length of the court. We ran a play we called ‘Home Run.’ We stole the play from Valparaiso – the play Bryce Drew scored on to win a game at the buzzer in the NCAA tournament. We ran it at the end of the first half and Charles hit it. We scored.
“Then we get into a late-game situation, 3.9 seconds left and we have to go the length of the court again. We call a timeout and I had Zane Zebrasky, who was the quarterback on our football team, taking the ball out of bounds because, well, he’s a quarterback. I told him to run ‘Home Run’ because it’s the only late-game play we have. What came back to bite us is we had hit the play at the end of the first half. Shaler knew what we were trying and Zane called another timeout. He said, ‘Coach, I can’t get the ball to him.’
“Well, the night before that game. I had scouted Central Catholic against Latrobe. Latrobe was a team that pressed and Central Catholic did a smart thing. Against the press, instead of having players run straight back toward the baseline to take an inbounds pass, they had their players curl back upcourt so the kid could catch the ball on the run.
“During the timeout, I literally drew up a play based on what Central Catholic had done the night before. I had two players, Charles on one side of the court and Will Glendenning on the other side. I had two other guys line up deep in the corner, hoping their guys would match up with them and open up the court.
“I had Charles curl to the left and told Zane to read it like a quarterback. Charles had time for only two or three dribbles. What is interesting is, we did a drill, about once a week at the end of practice, and guys would have two or three dribbles and had to shoot. I would tell them, ‘Just get it toward the rim. You never know what will happen if you get it toward the rim. It might bank in.’
“So, Charles gets the pass and takes a couple of dribbles and makes the shot, a 40-footer. We win the game. … I didn’t get to talk to Charles immediately after the game, not until we were walking up the steps and going to the bus. I asked him if he knew it was going in and he said, ‘Coach, I couldn’t even see the rim. I just remember being told during practice to get the ball near the rim.’”
A legendary football and track coach at Washington and Canon-McMillan, Montecalvo produced a state football championship team, multiple WPIAL championships in football and many PIAA and WPIAL champions in track and field.
“I could say a football state championship or WPIAL championship or a track state championship, or Laila Brock winning the 100-, 200-, 400- and 4x100 at the state championships in one day was the most memorable thing, but for me it’s an easy choice,” Montecalvo said without hesitation. “The most phenomenal athletic feat I have seen happened on the golf course.
“We were playing at Linden Hall in Perryopolis, at the Tri-CADA Golf Scramble. I was in a foursome. Bob Wagner, the former athletic director at Washington, and Ed Clark, my father-in-law, who was a Hall of Fame wrestling coach at Bedford, were in the group. We were on a par-3 where you could see the entire hole from the tee. Bob pulled out, I think, a 4-iron. He hits the shot and it wasn’t one that was going to hit the hole. It hit the front of the green, bounced and kept rolling, trickling toward the hole and went in.
“We were all jumping up and down, and my father-in-law, who is up next, grabs the club from Bob and says he’s going to use the same club Bob just used to get the hole-in-one. Well, he hits this picture-perfect shot that looks like it’s going to hit the pin. The ball lands on the green, takes one or two easy hops and goes right in the hole. It actually popped out because, I think, it hit Bob’s ball.
“I’ve never seen two holes-in-one on consecutive shots. I don’t know if it has ever been done anywhere else, let alone with the same club. I’ve never seen anything so spectacular.”
A longtime high school and small college football coach in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Moore has been involved in many games that included poor field conditions. He provided one unusual story from his early days in the profession.
“Probably the oddest thing occurred when I was an assistant at Clay-Battelle (W.Va.) in 1982 or ’83,” Moore said. “A player for the opposing team was injured and down on the field, which was a mudbowl that night. We had a cinder track that ran around the field. The ambulance drove onto the cinder track and at about the 20-yard line turned and went to the middle of the field for the injured player. The EMTs loaded him into the ambulance and as it started to leave the field, it got stuck in the mud. It just sank. So, myself and the coach for the other team went out and tried to push the ambulance out of the mud. We’re rocking it but the tires were spinning, just throwing mud up all over both of us. I can remember the PA announcer saying, ‘C’mon boys, give them a hand.’ Instead of going out and helping us, the players stood on the sideline and started clapping.”
A former head basketball coach at several high schools in the WPIAL, including Trinity, Dunn was involved in one of those crazy comebacks that can only happen with a unique set of events.
“One thing that stands out to me happened when I was the coach at Mt. Pleasant,” Dunn said. “We were playing a big game against Jeannette and were losing by four points with only five seconds left. We were inbounding the basketball on the sideline and had the pass stolen, but we still won the game.
“Here’s what happened: We threw the ball in and the guy who stole the pass, stumbles and gets called for traveling, but he keeps on going and throws down this thunderous slam dunk. He gets a technical foul for dunking the ball, and Kevin Kozak, who would go on to play at the Naval Academy, makes both free throws for us. We then get the ball because of the traveling call and run an inbounds play for Kozak, who scored 37 points in the game, and he puts one in at the buzzer that ties the game. We end up winning in overtime and that game sent us on to a section championship.”