Sports provided solid foundation for ex-Hurricane
He now devotes his time and energy to tennis, but Charles M. (Chuck) Sypula retains strong memories of the years he spent writing special chapters in basketball and baseball at Bellmar High School.
“I have been playing a lot of singles matches these days,” said Sypula, who grew up in Fayette City and now lives on Maryland's eastern shore. “I have grown to love the game and I do work at it. But I have to say I do miss all that comes with playing team sports.”
A 1964 graduate of Bellmar High, Sypula, 67, has been a successful entrepreneur and business owner for 33 years.
His introduction to organized sports began long before he gained recognition at Bellmar.
“I was recently reminded by a high school classmate, Ross Brightwell, that I somehow managed to score 36 points as a fifth-grader in a Fayette City Rec League basketball game.” Sypula said, quickly adding with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “Apparently, defense wasn't taught in those days until the sixth grade.”
“I remember that game was actually written up in The Valley Independent and Bap Manzini, who ran the league, was quoted in the article. Bap's path and mine would intersect many times over the course of my growing up in the Valley, and he would become one of my most influential mentors.”
Sypula moved from the Rec League to Marion Junior High School, where he played for coach Harry Muckle and then became a three-year starter in basketball at Bellmar High.
“Ken Clark was our coach on the varsity level,” Sypula recalled. “He was a terrific coach and even a better person and mentor.”
Sypula's most memorable varsity games came “with the rush of scoring 25 points in a game at Charleroi my sophomore year and the trauma that same season of playing against Uniontown and coach Abe Everhart's smothering full-court press.
“I still have nightmares about (Uniontown all-stater) Don Yates at 6-4 covering the inbounds pass on the press,” Sypula said. “I was the in-bounder, sort of. I can't remember exactly how many passes I threw into the stands that night as a skinny, 15-year-old, first-year varsity player, but it was more than one.
“Uniontown went on to win the states that year (1962) led by Yates and Ron Sepic. Sepic later appeared on the Ed Sullivan TV show standing next to Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar) as a Parade Magazine High School All-American.”
Sypula was named to the All-Section 5-A second team that year as a senior.
“That's a feat of which I was particularly proud given all the talent that played in the very tough WPIAL Section 5 at the time,” he said.
“Recently, some friends and I were discussing who had played against the best high school basketball players during their high school careers,” Sypula said. “I had many choices, including Monessen's Bill Malinchak and Eric Crabtree, Donora's John Tyree, Rostraver's Bud Lemon, Charleroi's Stan Kemp, and Don Yates, Ron Sepic and Pope Gregory of Uniontown. But I felt I had a sure winner by naming Stu Lantz of Uniontown. He had a fabulous college career at Nebraska and a long career in the NBA.
“Instead, I lost badly when a buddy of mine from D.C. called out Elgin Baylor and another evoked Dave Bing's name. Both Baylor and Bing had played at Springarn High School in the District.”
Sypula recalled that Bellmar had “a very nice team” in his senior season led by juniors Vic Worry, Curt McCarthy and Frank Mascara and fellow senior Chuck Humphries.
“We gave Stu Lantz and the eventual undefeated state champion Uniontown ‘all they could handle' that year at home,” he said. “That was the way The Valley Independent's Johnny Bunardzya described it in writing about the game the following day.”
Sypula went on to play freshman basketball as a walk-on point guard at Penn State University, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in education in 1968.
“Playing at Penn State was a wonderful experience for me, particularly given the fact that I was following in the footsteps of my beloved uncle, surrogate father, mentor and Penn State Hall of Famer Lou Lamie,” Sypula said.
If basketball was Sypula's first love in sports, baseball was a close second.
“Bellmar had just started a varsity baseball program in my junior year and I was named captain,” he said. “Bap Manzini, who enjoyed a storied Hall of Fame career as a football coach, was named to coach the baseball team that first year. He was terrific but was quick to admit he knew little about baseball. He often would look to my teammates and myself for advice on certain strategies and plays.
“But he was a motivator without equal. Bap brought his football mentality and his toughness and gruff style, learned no doubt from his playing days in the NFL, to the baseball field. His unorthodox approach to the game of baseball was very effective, though. We became a very competitive team in our first year in the league.”
Sypula, a shortstop, said Manzini did everything for that team “including often driving the bus to practice and away games.”
“The irony was that Bap drove the bus with little regard for the same traffic laws he taught so diligently as Bellmar's driver education teacher,” he recalled.
“But the team somehow survived. Led by Vic Worry, our left-handed ace who had a Hall of Fame career at Pfeiffer University and later played in the New York Mets' organization, we challenged for the section championship. Vic and I actually got invited to a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates at old Forbes Field in 1964.”
Sypula also played American Legion baseball for the Monessen Ozarks and another memorable mentor in manager Angie DeFrancesco.
“Angie was a terrific baseball man but, just as important, a gentle spirit and kind soul,” Sypula said. “He made my entire experience with the Ozarks a remarkable one.”
One of the highlights of that tenure with the Ozarks, Sypula said, was “playing against my (Bellmar) classmate Ron ‘Slugger' Baron when he played for the Charleroi Magicians.”
“Ron was a great talent and had an outstanding career playing in Canada,” Sypula said. “He was eventually inducted into the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame.”
Sypula played second base as a freshman and sophomore at Penn State under coaches Chuck Medler and Don Kepler.
While basketball and baseball were at the forefront of Sypula's athletic endeavors, he recalls that “the most quietly influential mentor” he had was his volleyball coach, John “Corky” DeMillion.
“Mr. DeMillion's influence was one of gentle, dignified strength,” he said. “Interscholastic volleyball was new to Bellmar and, although I was elected captain, I really knew little about the game.”
Early in the season, DeMillion took his charges to the Turners Club in Monessen to practice against “what appeared to us to be a team of less than organized and not very athletic older men,” Sypula said.
“Older men, that is, through the eyes of a teenager,” he said. “Young men, that is, now through the eyes of this 60-something-year-old.”
“The Turners' gym was old, dusty and poorly lit with ceilings that could not have been more than 14 or 15 feet high. That made the game in which the net between opposing teams is 7 feet high almost unplayable. We were unimpressed and over-confident to the point of being a bit cocky.”
But the Hurricanes had been warned by DeMillion, “in his typical, understated manner to ‘be ready at all times,'” Sypula said. “I can still hear him saying, ‘Keep your hands in front of your face.'”
“We should have listened more closely to his softly spoken words of wisdom,” he said. “On the very first play, an ‘outside hitter' on the Turners' team, wearing thick black rim glasses, ragged shorts, saggy socks, worn canvas Chuck's and a T-shirt that barely covered his midriff, crushed a rocket of a spike over the net that broke one of my teammate's glasses and probably his nose. Lesson learned. The old adage of respecting one's elders would be embossed in our minds forever.”
Outside of sports, Sypula also recalls with great fondness Ruth Frost, his English teacher at Bellmar, as a mentor.
“Anyone who had the good fortune to be in her classes would tell you the same thing, I'm sure,” he said. “Miss Frost's dedication to her profession and to her students and her kind and gentle demeanor commanded respect. I remember Denny Manzini, a good friend and a big athletic kid who was Bap's son and the starting quarterback on Bellmar's undefeated 1963 football team, actually being inspired to write poetry in her class. I always admired the way she managed a classroom. She, perhaps more than anyone, was the reason I chose to begin my working life as an English teacher after graduating from Penn State.”
Sypula also has other vivid memories of growing up in the Mon Valley, especially Fayette City, a town of about 900 residents at the time.
“I have always thought that if I were to write a book it would be about the town I grew up in.” he said. “Fayette City had zero traffic lights, one NFL official (Jim Hamer), two Major League baseball players (Jim Russell and Jake Martin), seven bars, seven churches and innumerable characters whose stories and personalities were so unique that they couldn't possibly be made up. It was a close-knit community of caring people and a wonderful place to grow up.”
“Fayette City also had outstanding semi-professional baseball teams that competed in the Mon Valley League and other sandlot circuits in the region as well as prolific youth teams,” Sypula said.
“They were all organized and operated, for the most part, by my uncle Joe Alberta, who was affectionately known around town as ‘The Commissioner' or ‘Mr. Baseball,'” he said. “The field in town still bears his name.”
Sypula's aunt, Emma Alberta Williams, was the town's unofficial “mayor and organizer in chief,” he recalled.
“Uncle Joe and Aunt Emma were but two of nine siblings, all of whom were, of course, my aunts and uncles,” he said. “The majority of them lived with their families in Fayette City. So, doing the math, I was probably related to nearly a double digit percentage of the town's residents. On my short block and a half walk to and from the school bus every day, I would pass by my grandmother's house, my aunt Renee's house and my aunt Mary's house. I couldn't get in trouble no matter how hard I tried.”
Strong friendships also evolved during those years.
“We were seven guys all the same age, all with the same interests, all college bound, all athletes growing up in the same small town,” Sypula said of Ed Lorinchalk, Tom Young, Bill Shook, Chuck Humphries, Ross Brightwell and Tom Pollack.
“We had a strong bond made stronger by the influence of growing up in a one of a kind, small town.”
(If you have memories to share or story ideas, contact Ron Paglia at firstname.lastname@example.org or c/o The Valley Independent, Eastgate 19, Monessen, PA 15062.)
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.