North Catholic athletics beginning new era in Butler County
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The victory bell will have a new home, as will the banners, trophies and photos that lined the hallway below North Catholic's quirky gym.
All that history won't be forgotten.
“We're moving 75 years of tradition,” athletic director Mike Burrell said, “and nothing was thrown away, let me tell you that. We're finding things from the '40s and '50s. I've put together more cardboard boxes than I ever wanted to.”
Founded in 1939, the high school now called Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic has a new campus waiting in Cranberry, Butler County, more modern than its former Troy Hill home about 20 miles away in Pittsburgh's North Side.
“We have such a great, rich history at North Catholic, and we'll never want to forget that,” Burrell said. “But bringing it all to a new school, that's been a daunting task.”
The move, which started in May, stretched into July. Not everyone embraced it.
“It's a tough balancing act,” Burrell said. “We want to make everyone happy, which is almost impossible.”
He will leave that to the football team, which won a state championship last season. That win left everyone associated with the school proud, said Burrell, who sees athletics as one of the best links between new and old.
“I think that (state title) has made the transition easier for everybody,” Burrell said. “When you win, it's happy times. It brings alumni back. And I've never been to a place that had such alumni support.”
A former member of the old Pittsburgh Catholic League, North Catholic owns 18 WPIAL titles in basketball since joining in 1973. But the WPIAL and PIAA football titles won last fall were the first in school history.
“We ended the old tradition with a state championship, so that was pretty nice,” said running back P.J. Fulmore, who scored the winning points in overtime to beat Old Forge, 15-14, in Hershey. “We'll start some new traditions and try to keep the old traditions from North Catholic.”
Yet the move almost cost the football team its best player. Fulmore, a Duquesne recruit, considered transferring for his senior year. But, in part because he's on course to graduate early, Fulmore stuck with North Catholic.
“If he would have had to stay up there the full year, I don't think we probably would have done it,” said his mother, Cristine, president of the school's football boosters. “But he has a state championship team, and he wants to defend the title. That's the bottom line.”
By leaving the city, she predicts the school's demographics could change in years to come, with more students added from suburban neighborhoods.
The commute from their Mt. Washington home takes 30 to 50 minutes, she said, based on traffic.
“We're disappointed to see it move,” she said. “There's a lot of tradition at North Catholic. If you ask P.J. where he went to school, it's North Catholic, not Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic. He's one of those true North Catholic city kids.”
Burrell believed the school lost “maybe a handful” of students because of the move. But most followed, he said. According to preliminary plans, North Catholic will bus city students to Cranberry.
“We don't want to lose that aspect of our school,” Burrell said. “It's very important to keep (the students from Pittsburgh). That's what North Catholic was built on. We don't want to lose that just because it's a few more miles.”
The new building has been ready since February, minus some road projects and township paperwork. For athletics, the building has a 1,400-seat gym, a new weight room, training center and a film room that seats 75. By spring, the campus should have baseball and softball fields as well as a practice field for football and other sports.
But there's no football stadium. The Trojans will continue to use North Park's Stone Field for home games. But within two years, North Catholic may need to play elsewhere.
It remains a Class A-sized school for now, with 202 students last school year. But an anticipated enrollment surge eventually could push it to Class AAA. The new $70 million, 185,000-square-foot school can hold 1,000 students.
“(Stone Field) is a beautiful place, and the county has treated us well,” Burrell said, “but we should eventually outgrow that (stadium) within the next couple years, I would think.”
An on-campus stadium is the goal, he said, but renting another larger stadium could be the short-term answer. The football team will practice at Graham Park, a township-owned complex in Cranberry.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney and general manager Kevin Colbert, North Catholic alumni, toured the new campus this spring. Burrell said he believes longtime supporters will be pleased that the school's history was honored.
“We'll base what we do on the traditions of North Catholic,” Burrell said.
Boys basketball coach Dave Long considered retirement, but decided instead to move with the school.
“Part of the reason I'm coming back is to fulfill an obligation I feel to carry on the tradition of North Catholic,” said Long, a 1970 graduate who has coached North Catholic for more than 30 years, first as Don Graham's assistant and then as head coach.
The final open gym at the old school was Friday, on the court named after Graham.
“Like many alumni, it was tough to see (old North Catholic) go by the wayside,” said Long, who wanted to roll up the court and take it with him. “But if the cardboard boxes are any indication, then the new school is just an extension of life here on Troy Hill. They're doing everything in their power to maintain the future and keep a connection with the past.”
With North Catholic's history boxed and shipped, the question becomes: Where to put it all? Burrell already has considered locations for the bell that's rung by championship-winning teams.
“It will have a prominent spot,” he said. “It may be right outside our gym entrance, so everyone can see it.”
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