My father told me this story as it was told to him by his mother. The year was 1932. The town: Old Forge, Pennsylvania. The event: The day Old Forge’s basketball team won the state championship by beating a St. Vincent Strong of Erie 24-19. Coach Daniel Semenza made history that day. It would be the only state championship Old Forge would win in their long and glorious history of high school sports. Though current football coach Mike Schuback docked hard on the door once back in 1992, and rumors have it that this year he should be ringing the doorbell, only one state championship trophy lines the cabinets in the Old Forge High School halls: the one brought home from legendary coach Daniel Semenza.
It was cold that day. Very cold. The antiqued buses, heated mostly by bodies, lined up to take the team and a selected group of fans on the arduous 119-mile journey. There were no interstate highways back then, and the trip could take up to 3 hours. One could only imagine the bouncing and jarring the passengers and players had to endure. It was commonplace back then for the driver and adult passengers to smoke; thus, the players endure a smoke-filled environment as well.
When players Richard Roche, Paul Laurnzi, Leonard Morris, Leonard Williams, Francis Munley, along with managers Ernst Lambert and my late great uncle Sandy Furey step into the Arena, it must have been like a scene out of the movie,” Hoosiers.”
Here, this little group of coal miners' sons, many of whom worked for the mayor Louis Pagnotti, was taking on a powerhouse from across the state. Keep in mind, there were no class divisions at the time. These were the two best teams in the state. A true Goliath vs Samson match. That fact alone has made this incredible feat impossible to duplicate for future Old Forge teams of my era. Our gods and heroes are often dictated by the rules, equipment, and technology of the times, making comparisons difficult -if not impossible. Though, one thing that has appeared to be the same then, as it is now, is Blue Devil Pride. The iconic pitchfork might have changed slightly, but the metaphorical flame has not.
Playing in front of a crowd they could only have imagined before that morning, the mighty little Blue Devils took to the floor with pride and courage. Early in the game, the larger opponents dominated the back-boards, and St. Vincent took a 6-2 lead in the first quarter. Some two-handed set shots, from what now would be a three-point line, by Richard Roche and Arthur Ferentino got Old Forge within two points by half-time, 12-10.
In the third quarter, Semenza used brilliant ball control and went into the fourth quarter tie 16-16.
A beautiful lay-up and a free throw gave St. Vincent a 19-16 lead, but precision outside shooting from Old Forge soon piled up four baskets and a 24-19 lead. They acrobatically kept the ball out of St. Vincent’s hands for the two minutes of play and returned to the anthracite region with the state championship.
Word got back to Old Forge, and they were enthusiastically greeted as they arrived in town. It was a glorious and memorable occasion. It was, That Champion Season.