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Stadium history spans decades in Belle Vernon

| Saturday, March 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Players, fans and the high school band shared the sidelines in the early days of Speers Field in Belle Vernon, as evident in this undated photo from the archives of Jesse Cramer, Belle Vernon Area High School athletic director and district magisterial judge in Belle Vernon.
The 1942 Belle Vernon High School football team was the last one coached by Pete Koma (standing, right) before he left to accept a job at Youngstown East High School in Ohio in 1943. Koma coached football and basketball at BVHS for 13 years and also was a teacher in the Commercial Department.

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Athletes and athletics are sure to be an integral subject of interest as the Belle Vernon Borough Bicentennial Committee prepares for its major celebration June 13-16.

And the 4.7-acre recreational complex nestled along Vernon and Columbus streets will draw considerable attention.

“There are so many memories at that site,” said Jesse Cramer, athletic director at Belle Vernon Area High School, who has compiled a history of the facility that opened nearly 93 years ago. “Many, many times persons who played (football) there as a member of a high school or midget team member return and speak of the days when they performed on that field. How a small tract of land could hold so many memories for so many people is often hard to believe. Thousands of young persons, as well as the entire community, have benefited from the use of the stadium and hopefully thousands more are yet to come.”

The field has carried many names over the years including “The Rock Pile,” Speers Field, Belle Vernon Stadium and Bellmar Stadium.

Known in recent years, and continuing today, as Manzini Field at Brewer Stadium in honor of the late William L. “Bill” Brewer and Baptiste “Bap” Manzini, the land, which was part of a large farm, was donated to Belle Vernon High School by the Speers family in 1920. It was called Speers Field for many years in recognition of the late Dr. Samuel M. Speers, a longtime dentist in Belle Vernon and Brownsville and a descendant of the founding fathers of Belle Vernon and Speers boroughs.

Dr. Speers was born in Speers Borough on July 8, 1892, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Dentistry and practiced dentistry until 1917. He left this profession to enter the coal business and was a coal operator at the time of his death at age 64 on April 23, 1957. He also had operated coke ovens, the Belle Vernon Oil Co. and a Hereford cattle farm.

In addition to the Belle Vernon High School Wildcats, an independent men's football team known as the Belle Vernon Mohawks also used the field beginning in 1920. According to newspaper archives, the Mohawks also produced sandlot baseball teams and independent basketball team through the 1920s.

Cramer's records indicate that other high school teams playing home games at the field were the North Belle Vernon Jackrabbits, Vernon Bulldogs and Bellmar Hurricanes.

Bellmar High School was created as the result of a merger between Vernon and Marion school districts and made its debut under that banner on Sept. 8, 1951, with a 13-0 victory over Derry at the latter's field. The school's first victory at home came a week later – on Sept. 14 – as an estimated 3,000 fans packed what became known as Bellmar Stadium to watch the 'Canes crush Point Marion, 30-0. With the ball on the visitors' 29, quarterback Henry Studnicki threw a pass to Lee Cope, who pulled it in at the seven and scampered into the end zone for the first touchdown in Bellmar history.

Fullback Don Klochak scored on runs of 51 and 79 yards. and Tom Osborne and Chuck Fisher accounted for the other six-pointers in that 1951 inaugural game.

Bellmar continued as the home team through the 1964 season. It consolidated with Rostraver High School to form Belle Vernon Area School District in 1965 and home games were moved to the field in Rostraver. BVA continues at that site, now known as James Weir Stadium, today.

The final high school game was played at the stadium on Thursday, Oct. 22, 1964, as Bellmar defeated California, 21-13, before a Parents Night crowd estimated at 6,000. The loss eliminated the previously unbeaten Trojans from the WPIAL Class A championship race. Bellmar quarterback Harry Muckle scored the last scholastic touchdown at the stadium when he plunged into the end zone behind center Don Peters in the fourth quarter. Dave Pierallini accounted for the final extra point on a run.

A number of outstanding teams have played at the field over the years. The 1959 and 1963 Bellmar teams, both coached by Manzini, the only head coach in the school's history, were both undefeated with 10-0-0 records but missed the WPIAL Class A playoffs because of insufficient Gardner Rating System points..

The 1936 Belle Vernon Wildcats also posted an undefeated mark under the guidance of coach Pete Koma. They defeated Fayette City High School, 48-0, in the season finale at Speers Field to finish with a 7-0-1 record. The 1941 Belle Vernon team, also coached by Koma, also was undefeated at 7-0-0.

Shelby Ferguson, longtime funeral director and civic leader in Belle Vernon, played four years for Koma before graduating from Belle Vernon High in 1941 and remembers Speers Field very well.

“That's pretty much what it was, just a field,” said Ferguson, a four-year letterman in football and basketball for the Wildcats. “When it rained, the clay became very hard – solid as a rock – and evolved into sharp points, and you could count on getting cut or nicked pretty bad when you went down. The same thing happened if was really cold and the field froze. The cleats on our (football) shoes didn't help very much, the footing was very bad. There's so much talk today about artificial surfaces and artificial grass, but there was no grass at our field.”

The 1940 Wildcats, trying to bounce back from a 1-7-0 record a year earlier, had no problems with the playing conditions in their season opener on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 14, as they rolled over Fairchance, 40-7. Ferguson, a 190-pound fullback, scored three touchdowns on runs of 17 and 25 yards and a two-yard plunge and tacked on two extra points through the center of the line. Quarterback Raymond Tesi added two six-pointers on sprints of 11 and 13 yards and also accounted for a PAT, halfback Paul Sefchock rambled 54 yards on a sweep around left end, and Bill Dawson accounted for the other extra point.

“That was the highlight of our season,” Ferguson recalled. “I don't think we won another game after that.”

Ferguson, who was throttled by a leg injury that required surgery that season, also recalls playing a few home games at Husher Field near Allen's Crossroads in Rostraver “when Speers Field was really bad.”

“That was Rostraver High School's home field, and we often went there to watch games,” Ferguson said. “I remember Rostraver when they had a big guy named ‘Red' Thompson. It was almost impossible to stop him; he was just a bruising player who refused to go down.”

“There were so many outstanding teams and individual players who displayed their talents on that gridiron that it would be impossible to name all of them,” said Cramer, who's also a district magisterial judge. “And don't forget the many top coaches that guided their teams from the sidelines, the excellent bands that performed there and the cheerleaders who led the spirited crowds that filled the stands for home games. All of those teams enjoyed tremendous support from the community.”

Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.

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