Fran Celaschi

Fran Celaschi

Defense, pitching and fundamental offensive baseball were the staples of Fran Celaschi’s Charleroi High School program for many seasons.

He was as old-school baseball as it comes.

More than 300 victories, 13 section championships and a whole lot of buckets of baseballs later, Celaschi’s legacy of Charleroi Cougars baseball remains.

“We were always fundamentally sound,” said Nick Milchovich, who played for Celaschi. “When I look back at it as a coach, when he said something, he meant it. At practice, it was situation after situation defensively. If you couldn’t play defense or bunt, you couldn’t play. He liked to squeeze (bunt). He believed in that type of offense.

“He expected his teams to play defense and they worked hard at it. He also believed in pitching. Pitching and defense is what he based his teams on.”

Celaschi, 83, coached Charleroi for 27 seasons, taking over the program in the 1970s, a decade in which the Cougars had consistent success.

In addition to coaching baseball, Celaschi coached football at the school 16 years. A 1956 graduate of Charleroi, he was a two-sport star and later became captain of California State College’s baseball team.

He was a starting catcher on the Vulcans’ 1962 team, coached by Mitch Bailey, that was the best in the Northeast Region and advanced to the NAIA World Series in St. Joseph, Mo.

In 2013, he was inducted into the Charleroi Area High School Hall of Fame.

“When I took the job, it was tough,” Celaschi said. “There really wasn’t a program. We had the kids come and try out and attempt to put a team together. It took me about four years to understand high school baseball. High school baseball was different.”

Celaschi said the Mon Valley sandlots and four years at Cal were a different brand of baseball.

“You can’t just throw the bats out and roll the balls out,” he said. “We ended up putting a young team together and it matured and by the late 1970s we found success. We started winning.

“I felt at the (high school) level, defense was the name of the game. We’d start early practicing inside, working on defense and pitching. My philosophy was we would always work hard on defense.

“I think once we got it going in the late 1960s and into the ‘70s, we had a bunch of kids who really were enthusiastic about playing baseball for Charleroi High School.”

Charleroi won six section crowns in the 1970s – in a span of eight seasons from 1971 to 1978 – and finished second in the other two years, four in the 1980s (1982, 1986, 1987 and 1988) and two in the 1990s.

The Cougars dropped in classification in the 1980s, which helped the Cougars, who suffered a rare losing season in 1981.

“It was a disappointing season,” recalled Celaschi, who resides in Charleroi with his wife, Jean. “We lost our two top pitchers with injuries and we had some other injuries. We didn’t hit well, and we left too many runners on base.”

So close

Charleroi capitalized quickly on dropping into Class AA by advancing to the WPIAL championship game in 1982, where it lost to Northgate, 12-6. The Cougars then advanced to the PIAA quarterfinals only to be topped by the Flames again, 6-3. Charleroi finished that season 17-6 and with a lot of frustration.

Celaschi, who has three children, Holly, Jay and Aaron, admits not having won a WPIAL championship still gnaws at him.

“I would have liked to have won that big one,” Celaschi said. “But it didn’t happen.”

It certainly could have in 1982 when luck escaped the Cougars each time they encountered Northgate.

After the state playoff loss to the Flames, Celaschi was quoted as saying: “They’re not a better team than us. I don’t care if you put that in three-inch bold print. If Tim Cunningham (Charleroi’s ace) would have pitched against them, Northgate wouldn’t have scored a run. You can put that in bold print, too.”

Cunningham pitched the Cougars past Erie East, 6-1, but was unable to pitch against Northgate on two-day’s rest.

Mick Carcella, who started that PIAA quarterfinal game against Northgate, said the championship and state playoff loss did nothing to dampen his time in the Charleroi baseball program.

“Looking back at the experience I had, it was a great time,” said Carcella. “To me, Cheech was fair. He saw that I tried, and I cared. He gave me an opportunity when I was a ninth grader. He was that old-school type of person and coach. He wanted to see players who cared and who gave their best effort every day.

“I knew if I tried, I would get an opportunity. Those who didn’t care or try . . . well. Cheech had his way. The big chaw in his mouth and the expectations.

“He was my mentor, like my dad. I respected him and he respected me back.”

Charleroi had two other big-time chances that come to mind. In 1991, the Cougars played East Allegheny in the WPIAL quarterfinals, an 11-3 loss.

The fifth inning went sideways and it derailed Charleroi’s postseason plans.

The Cougars’ Brad Simala reached on an error, and after two walks and an error he scored. Celaschi called for a squeeze bunt but East Allegheny pitched out and tagged the runner out at home and then nailed a baserunner who wondered off the base for a double play – end of rally and inning. Momentum was gone.

The Wildcats scored nine runs in the final three innings and hard-hitting Charleroi managed just two hits in the game. Charleroi finished the season 19-2.

The Cougars’ other near-miss came in 1987 when after upending Fort Cherry, the defending WPIAL Class AA champion, they went to Pullman Park in Butler to play Ford City, which featured future professional pitcher Dennis Harriger and was the PIAA and WPIAL runnerup a season earlier.

Charleroi led Ford City, 1-0, into the sixth inning as Scott Smith was outdueling Harriger, having yielded three hits.

But the Sabers scored two unearned runs in the sixth and denied the Cougars a spot in the championship game.

As with Carcella, Gary Riley – the shortstop on the 1987 team – didn’t let a playoff disappointment diminish the value and experience he had playing for Celaschi.

“We went after every game like it was the last game,” Riley said of Celaschi’s coaching style. “We didn’t have all the technology there is today with the equipment, the workouts, anything.

“In those days there were very few bad teams. You better play your best or you would lose. It was a hard-nosed approach to baseball, just like the old days.

“I always considered Cheech a father figure because he was like my dad – old-school. We fought for a run every time at bat. We knew if the leadoff man got on, the next guy was bunting. If we had a guy on third, and less than two out, we were squeezing, no matter the inning or score.”

From Cal to World Series

Celaschi enjoyed his days at California and relished the 1962 season when the Vulcans won the region and played in the NAIA World Series.

“The great thing about those teams was that no one was recruited,” he said. “Almost every guy was from Southwestern Pennsylvania and we all just went there to play and go to school. When you have that without anyone being recruited to play there, you know you have a group who really wanted to be there together and play out of passion for the game. It turned out to be a great team.”

Celaschi initially played third base for Andy Sepsi at Cal as a freshman. Mitch Bailey then took over the program Celaschi’s sophomore year.

“He asked me if I ever caught,” Celaschi recalled. “I didn’t know him at all. I became the catcher. Mitch then put the team together. We had kids from all over the area – Brownsville, Charleroi, Elizabeth – and so on.

“We played Pitt, West Virginia, some of the big boys.”

Casper Voithofer, who played against Celaschi in high school and in summer baseball, was a teammate at Cal. He said Celaschi was a staple for the Vulcans.

“Cheech was an outstanding player, excellent catcher and team leader,” Voithofer said. “He was a batterymate of Bruce Dal Canton. Cheech was well respected and an outstanding example of a hard-nosed baseball player. He was a student of the game and always fundamentally sound.”

Celaschi said he enjoyed his baseball experience and all that went with it as a player and a coach.

“I feel good about it all,” he said. “I thought about always wanting that one win. That’s the business, the game. I did miss being around my family when I coached two sports. I don’t have any regrets.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history.

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