Dave Johnston

The belief was resolute.

Those associated with the 1980 Washington high School track team believed a WPIAL Class AAA championship was more than wishful thinking or some dream.

These Prexies were not just simply going to cross their collective fingers and hope to do something special.

“We were loaded,” said then junior Orlando Williams. “We didn’t have a weak link. We got along. We were ready to win it. We had no problems and we believed we were going to win (the title).”

Williams, as do many of his teammates, credited the late Dave Johnston, the Prexies’ long-time track coach and his staff for developing individuals and molding it into a quality team.

“A.J. (Johnston’s nickname born from his admiration for race car driver A.J. Foyt) had so much to do with it,” Williams said. “He played such a big part.”

For the record, Wash High scored 57 points to win its first WPIAL boys track and field team championship at Latrobe Stadium in May of 1980.

The Prexies, a Class AA team according to student enrollment numbers, outscored North Hills (45 points), Mt. Lebanon and Gateway (each with 44) and North Allegheny (42) to win the crown.

Washington decided to compete up in classification because in his 23 years as the coach at the school, Johnston let competing in Class AAA and winning the WPIAL championship in the highest classification become a crusade.

In the May 16 edition of the Observer-Reporter, the day after Wash High won the title, Johnston was quoted as saying: “We’ve waited 23 years for this. These kids don’t know what this means to me.

“We fought with this Double-A thing for years now (whether to continue in Class AAA or drop to Class AA). I’ve always wanted to win the Triple-A title. Winning this one time means so much more to me than winning the Double-A 10 or 15 times. That’s no slap against Double-A track. It’s just that we wanted to win this thing for so long.”

Wash High had finished as WPIAL runner-up twice in Johnston’s 23 years as coach, 1974 and 1975.

In 1980, the team champion was determined by the amount of points a team scored during the WPIAL individual championships. Today, the WPIAL team champion is determined by head-to-head competition, semifinal dual meets with the winners of each semifinal meeting in a dual meet final.

Wash High went undefeated in dual meet competition in 1980. The Prexies defeated many of the most successful and dominant programs in Class AAA, including Mt. Lebanon, Penn Hills, Bethel Park, Norwin, Canon-McMillan and Trinity.

Wash High captured the Butler Invitational, the Baldwin Invitational – both prestigious meets – and the Canon-McMillan Relays and Washington County Coaches meet, totaling the most points ever in the event, during the regular season.

It all helped the Prexies build confidence – and a reputation – as the season moved toward the postseason and the WPIAL championship.

“A.J. always wanted to run against the best competition,” said standout Derek Hull, one of the team’s senior captains and its top performer. “He had it all planned out. The competition did make us better individually and as a team.

“We just ran you down. It was an all-around team effort the entire season. When we needed the mile-relay team to perform in the finals to win the WPIAL, the mile relay team came through.”

The Prexies held the lead late in the championships. North Hills pulled within two points of the Prexies. But Wash High clinched the title by capturing the mile relay – commonly known today as the 4x400-meter relay.

Mission accomplished.

“I think kudos to A.J.,” said John Johnston, a senior captain with Hull. “He was able to pull that team together. He was able to adjust and move people around the lineup that helped us get maximum points. History shows he was a great coach.

“We stayed together the entire season. Our job as seniors was to keep everyone focused. A.J. was driving the ship. We all thought and believed we were going to win it. We saw it coming. I’m proud that everyone knew and accepted what we had to do and needed to do to win the WPIAL championship.”

Hull, one of the school’s top hurdlers, captured the 120-yard high hurdles (14.21) and 300-yard intermediate hurdles (38.61) in the WPIAL championships.

The mile relay team, which clinched the team title by winning a WPIAL crown consisted of Richie Barnes, Bill Miller, John Cohen and Hull.

The other placewinners that day who qualified for the PIAA Championships were Williams, third in the shot put and fourth in the discus; Johnston, second in the pole vault and senior Jeff Johnston, second in the mile run; and the two-mile relay team of senior Ron Glendenning, Wayne Logan, Darren Hull and Jon Wise earned a valuable team point.

Jeff Johnston enjoyed an outstanding season as a long distance runner for Wash High and was a huge contributor to the teams’ success throughout.

Barnes, a junior, was a top sprinter for Wash High in the 100-yard dash and 220-yard dash, among other events.

Other key contributors to the team were: Ivan Sadler, long jump, triple jump and pole vault; Don Hull, mile run and relay; Craig Vancura, pole vault and high jump; Joe Henderson, sprinter; Doug Brown, sprints and relays; and Kent Calloway, jumper.

Other team members included: Tony Nicolella, Jerry Interval, Bill McCracken, jumper, Brian Gilmore, Eddie Boardley, Kevin Anderson, George Snyder, Bruce Lee, Bill Fuqua, Gerald Comedy, Bill Braun, Melvin Sweeny, Ron Chandler and Robert Dates, hurdler.

“What some people don’t remember is how strong we were in the field events,” said Nicolella, who was a junior and participated in the field events. “Ivan was a really good jumper and John Johnston was an excellent pole vaulter. He could really get up there. We didn’t just have all sprinters and runners. Orlando was really good with the shot and discuss and he became a WPIAL champion (the next season).

“From 1979, we lost Anthony Nicolella, who was a really good miler and two-miler for us, and we got lucky getting Jeff Johnston, who came to Wash High when his father (James Johnston) became the principal at the school. Jeff was really good in the distance races. We were good. We never lost a dual meet in my three years on the team.”

Running down giants

Coach Johnston’s crusade to win a Class AAA title was well-known, understood among his pupils.

The Prexies’ last WPIAL championship before 1980 came in 1973, when the cross country team captured its second consecutive district title.

Wash High’s WPIAL track championship was just the start of a run of track titles including 1981, 1984, 1986 (under Johnston), 1991 (under the late Don Clendaniel, track coordinator, and Tom Bell, boys’ coach), 1998 and 2000 (under Guy Montecalvo) and 2012 and 2013 (under Teresa Booker).

The 1980 team’s performance in the PIAA Championships wasn’t representative of the rest of the season. The Prexies managed just three points in the state meet as Derek Hull placed fifth in the 100-yard high hurdles and Jeff Johnston was sixth in the mile run. Hull had the misfortune of striking the eighth and final hurdle in the 300-meter intermediate race and did not place. He was in position to win when misfortune hit.

However, the 1980 team will always have the distinction of being the first to capture WPIAL gold for the Prexies.

“We had the athletes,” Barnes said. “A.J. would figure it all out and spread us out. He moved people around and figured it out. He had it down.

“He’d put us in those big meets and when we’d win them, it gave us a lot of confidence. Derek was really good, and Jeff Johnston was a great help. We all did whatever it took. The team got a lot out of John Cohen and John Johnston was one of the best pole vaulters. Honestly, we were strong everywhere.

“We had a well-rounded, together team.”

Added Glendenning: “I have a special feeling for that team. We were all team oriented. We had a special feeling for one another. Winning the championship felt so good. We had a lot of confidence.

“It all fell right into place. We were going up against schools with much larger enrollments, but it didn’t bother any of us. No matter where A.J. put us, we did what we had to do. It was like that all season.”

Dave Johnston’s staff included the late Joe Rodjom and Ron Faust, current Wash High basketball coach, and Eric McWilliams, who a year later lead the Prexies girls track team to the WPIAL finals.

“We had a lot of good kids,” McWilliams said. “Derek could do so many things. Wise was a solid half-miler. Richie Barnes was a solid sprinter and he really worked hard. Jeff Johnston was outstanding in the distance races and John Johnston did a great job in the pole vault.

“We competed against the larger schools in the WPIAL and we beat them. I think that says a lot about the kids and the coaching. The hard work and Coach Johnston’s leadership took us a long way.”

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