The WPIAL basketball championships are tonight and tomorrow, but before we get to that, just a note on TV-radio.
There is no live TV for the title games. But they will be available on replays through Xfinity "On Demand" starting early next week. Go to the "Get Local" folder, and then "Sports," and then "High School Sports" and then "Basketball" folders.
Also, all of the boys and girls games can be heard live on the MSA Sports network at www.msasports.net. Check listings for the games on radio.
Now, about these championships. One game, in particular, is bringing back a lot of memories. It is the Beaver Falls-Burrell game for the Class AA boys title. The last time Burrell was in a championship game was 1979. The opponent was Beaver Falls. The site was the Civic Arena. It was my first taste of live WPIAL championship basketball - and I thought the whole spectacle of the title games was simply terrific.
I saw two unforgettable games that night. My one mistake that year? I missed a great finish to the Beaver Falls-Burrell game. Seriously.
I always had a penchant for following high school sports. I'd read about them in the Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette, pretend I was Dickie DeVenzio on my Nerf basketball hoop when I was very young. As a kid, I can remember watching the WPIAL basketball playoffs and championships live on WQED Channel 13. Bill Cardille, Bill Hillgrove and Red Donley would come into my living room every March. And I will always remenmber "And now for the halftime stats, let's go to Dr. Tony Brungo." Heck, that same Dr. Brungo ended up coaching me when I was in seventh grade at St. Sebastian.
Anyway, in 1979 it was time to see the WPIAL championship games LIVE. I was a junior at North Hills High School and the North Hills girls team had made it to the WPIAL title game against Franklin Regional. I knew the players and I had to go. So my good buddy, Jim "Buster" Lang, and I jumped into my parents red and black Impala and headed into the city to the Civic Arena. I had been to the Civic Arena countless times with my father and three brothers for basketball games, but now I was a teenager driving and had no idea how to get to a dang parking lot.
Anyway, North Hills couldn't hold up against Franklin Regional's inside tandem of Pam Miklasevich and Cheryl Ellison and North Hills lost.
That was the first game of the championship tripleheader. Then came the two boys games. First, it was Midland and Ford City in the AA title game. Midland. The name was magical to me. Just like the Farrell Steelers. I had no clue where Midland was, but I watched many of those great Midland teams over the years on Channel 13, watched all the Slappy brothers and Chuck Gomez. Now I got to see the Leopards in person.
The Ford City-Midland game had one of the best finishes of a WPIAL championship game ever. I was in an end zone seat. As if it was only a month ago, I can still see Roosevelt "Boo" Kirby's desperation 30-footer in the air. I can hear the buzzer go off. And then I can still see Kirby's shot banking in. Game over. Midland magic again. Midland wins, 48-47. Poor Ford City.
Then came the nightcap - Beaver Falls vs. Burrell in the AAA final. A total of 8,740 fans were on hand at the Civic Arena that night. They saw another fantastic finish in this game. Too bad I missed it.
It was a highly-anticipated game for me. Beaver Falls had this supposed "one-of-a-kind" athlete, Dwight Collins. He was a junior, but he was good enough to start in football and basketball as a freshman, which was unheard of at that time, especially at a place like Beaver Falls. I can still see Joey Myers, the curly, blonde bomber from Burrell, making shots to put Burrell ahead.
Burrell was leading by 54-49 with a minute left. I looked at my buddy, Jim Lang, and said, "You wanna go?" We thought it was over. Besides, I had never driven myself in downtown before, so I was a little afraid of getting in the post-game rush. We left talking about how surprising it was that Burrell was "WPIAL champs." Burrell?
I drop Jim off at his house, go home and turn on the news. What? BEAVER FALLS WON!! How? In the Post-Gazette the next morning, I read how Damon Bryant scored six points in the final minute and scored the winniing basket with eight seconds left.
But that night in 1979 was the start of it all for me. Two years later, I was already working part-time at the Post-Gazette and was courtside on press row, helping keep stats for Post-Gazette reporters and running down quotes from players and coaches. I haven't missed many WPIAL boys championships since 1979. To me, the basketball championships are the best event in the high school season. The emotion. The electricity. The crowd seems so big at the Palumbo Center and there isn't as much of an empty feeling in the stands as there is when the football championships are played at Heinz Field.
I'm ready for another championship weekend. I won't leave early this time, either.
Here are my predictions for this weekend's championship games.
New Castle vs. Hampton - Yes, Hampton proved it can PLAY with New Castle, losing by only four points in early February. But nobody in the WPIAL will BEAT New Castle. Winner: New Castle.
Chartiers Valley vs. Montour - I picked Montour at the start of the playoffs. There is a part of me that wants to change to Chartiers Valley. But I'm not a "flipper." This one should be close. Winner: Montour.
Beaver Falls vs. Burrell - What a story for Burrell, making it to the final for the first time in 34 years. But the feel-good story must end at some point - like tomorrow. Beaver Falls' guards will be the difference. Winner: Beaver Falls.
Clairton vs. Vincentian - I know, I know. How can I go against Clairton? Football or basketball, these Bears just seem to find a way to win. But I just have a hunch on this one, which could be a fast-paced game. Winner: Vincentian.
Bethel Park vs. Chartiers Valley - I picked Bethel Park at the start of the playoffs. I'll stick with that pick. Jonna Burke is a fine coach who finally gets a WPIAL title. Winner: Beaver Falls.
South Park vs. Elizabeth Forward - Hey, if there is any security problems at Palumbo tomorrow, I'm going right to the end of South Park's bench. Coach Reggie Wells is a state policeman and his son, Reggie Jr., is an NFL lineman. But it's South Park's players who will be the difference in this game Winner: South Park.
Seton-LaSalle vs. Bishop Canevin - Bishop Canevin gave Seton-LaSalle a good game earlier this season. But beating Seton-LaSalle is a completely different story. Winner: Seton-LaSalle.
Vincentian vs. Serra - It will be another title for the Royals family. The Vincentian Royals boys will win Friday and the girls Saturday. Winner: Vincentian.