Bent-Ell team celebrates a belated 50th
Better late than never.
That could have been the theme of a belated 50th anniversary reunion of Bentleyville-Ellsworth (Bent-Ell) High School's WPIAL Class B championship basketball team.
But the wait, according to Jerry Blackburn of Ellsworth, a starter on the 1962-63 title team, was well worth it.
“No question about it, we had a great time reminiscing,” Blackburn said of the gathering at the Tradesmen's Inn in Scenery Hill. “It was really the first time got together as a team since that year (1963). We have attended class reunions, of course, and seen each other on other occasions, but there was a special feeling being together as a team again. That season was a very special time in our lives and will always remain so.”
Stan “Nunnie” Milchovich, assistant to head coach Steve Telleck at Bent-Ell in 1962-63, agreed.
“They were having the time of their lives,” said Milchovich, who helped organize the reunion. “There were a lot of great stories being told that night.”
While Milchovich, Blackburn and John Burcin journeyed from Ellsworth and Paul Maczuzak traveled from Bentleyville to nearby Scenery Hill, others attending the reunion posted longer trips. They included Dewey Wilkens of the Nashville suburb of Henderson, Tennessee, John Hamilton of Eureka, Montana, Frank Smith of Meadville, PA, Dan Smith of Tempe, Arizona, Greg Matosky of Westerville, Ohio, Ed Perri of New Freedom, PA, Fred Lese of Houston, PA, and Bill DiRito of Finleyville.
Hamilton graduated from Bent-Ell in 1962 and Dan Smith, Frank's brother, played later for the Bearcats, but they attended the reunion as guests.
“It was open to guys who were part of the teams between 1962 and 1966,” Blackburn said. “We're like one big happy family.”
Milchovich emphasized that point in a handsome commemorative book he created for the reunion. It includes detailed newspaper accounts of the Bearcats' games that led to a 22-2 record and references to these individuals as well as those mentioned above: Rich Guriel, Jeff Kollar, Gary Quattro, Leonard Sokoloff. Bill Teale, George Wiggins, Bob Powell, Ed Dobias, Jim Myers, Jim Nairn, Eric Christina and Vince Quattro.
The book also offers a poignant In Memoriam tribute to deceased members of the group – head coach Steve Telleck, players Ray Orsatti, John Adams and Ron Kurnick and student manager Ed Megles.
Hamilton was a member of the 1961-62 Bent-Ell team that advanced to the semifinals of the WPIAL Tournament.
Bent-Ell was formed as the result of a merger between longtime rivals Bentleyville and Ellsworth. The transition, Blackburn recalled, was a smooth one.
“We knew each other very well,” he said. “We had played against and with each other in youth sports and competed in junior high. We also attended social events outside of school together, so it wasn't like we were strangers.”
He also credited Telleck and Milchovich for creating a strong bond between the players.
“Coach Telleck was more laid back than Nunnie but he was an excellent coach,” Blackburn said. “He knew the game very well and was a strict disciplinarian. He had the ability to build your confidence and pride and get the best out of you. Steve and Nunnie complemented each other with their coaching styles. They instilled a strong sense of commitment to basketball and, more important, to each other.”
Blackburn said the Bearcats were confident and cautiously optimistic about their chances going into the 1962-63 season.
“We knew we had a lot of experience with four starters returning from the year before, but we took that one game at a time approach,” he said. “Our first goal was to win the section, make it to the playoffs and then go from there.”
The returning starters from the 61-62 team that posted a 22-2 record and bowed to Avonworth in the WPIAL semifinals were Blackburn, Wilkens, the team's leading scorer the previous two seasons, Perri and John Adams. The other starter, John Hamilton, had moved on to Westminster College.
Telleck said the top candidates for the spot vacated by Hamilton's graduation were seniors Ray Orsatti and Gary Quattro, both up from the junior varsity, and sophomore Frank Smith, a member of the junior high team that won the Junior WPIAL Section 5 title a year earlier. The Bent-Ell coach said he also was counting on Greg Matosky, Bill DiRito, Loren Schoenholtz, Paul Maczuzak and Bob Powell, all juniors.
The Bearcats posted a 7-1 record in exhibition play and won the Holiday Tournament championship at Immaculate Conception High School in Washington. The lone loss came at the hands of Rostraver, 73-57, in the fourth game of the pre-season grind.
Bent-Ell bounced back to reel off 16 straight wins including a 12-0 mark in winning the Section 18-B championship for the second straight year.
The Bearcats defeated Perryopolis 60-51 in the WPIAL quarterfinals at Monessen High's gym and throttled Neshannock 63-5 in the semifinal round at the Pitt Field House to set up the championship showdown against defending champion Edgewood.
Wilkens put Bent-Ell in front 47-46 with 37 seconds remaining as he sank both ends of a double foul and it appeared the Bearcats had the game in hand. But sophomore Bill Nichols, who replaced Biedenbach, had other ideas. The 5-8 guard took a pass in the right corner, drove for the basket and was fouled by Frank Smith with only 26 seconds left. Nichols sank both free throws to give Edgewood a 48-47 advantage.
Bent-Ell quickly moved the ball down court and tried to get it to Wilkens, who was boxed in by three Vikings. The Bearcats' chances seemed even slimmer when a jump ball was called between Adams and Larry Roofner following a scramble under the boards with just nine seconds to go.
Roofner tipped the ball toward mid-court, but the alert Blackburn saved it for B-E at the base line. He looked for Wilkens couldn't find him and flipped it to Smith. The 6-3 Smith, drove to the key, jumped and let go with a one-hander that ripped the nets as the final buzzer sounded. It was one of the most exciting finishes in WPIAL tournament history.
“I don't think I've ever seen a more beautiful basket,” Blackburn said. “It seemed like it took forever to go in, as though time stood still. But when the ball went through nets, the place just exploded.”
Smith wound up as the Bearcats' top scorer with 15 points, while Wilkens added 14 and Adams had 10.
Blackburn recalled a rather humorous tone to the post-game celebration near the Bent-Ell bench.
“Nunnie wasn't real big on handing out compliments; he has his own unique way of doing that,” Blackburn said. “As we were jumping up and down and hugging each other on the sideline, (Milchovich) came over to me, patted me on the back and said in reference to the pass I made to Frank, ‘Nice goin', Blackburn. That's the only good thing you did all night.' I wanted to remind him that I took the charge that put Biedenbach out of the game but we were too busy enjoying moment. Besides, I knew what he meant.”
Bent-Ell's dreams of winning a state championship ended on Friday, March 16, when they lost to Cresson Joint of Berlin 55-41 in the first round of the PIAA Class B playoffs.
It was a bitter pill to swallow but it did not deter from the 22-2 season for Bentleyville-Ellsworth and the first and only WPIAL basketball championship of the school district that is now known as Bentworth.
“They were a special group,” Milchovich said.
No one will argue that point.
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.