St. John’s had a starting five consisting of Larry Fisher, Phill Wooddy and Vinnie Whyel and two juniors Nick DiLeo and Mel Robinson. St. John’s got significant contributions off the bench from Phil Mongell, Dan Miller and Tom Coyne.
The Eagles run to the title was a bit of a surprise.
“We had a better team the year before,” Fisher opined. “In 1964 we actually had a better team.”
‘We almost won the state championship in our freshman year,” Wooddy said. “There was a driving zeal and determination when we crested three years later.”
The Eagles were guided by one of the giants of high school coaching in Pennsylvania - James “Lash” Nesser. The players on that 1965 squad all agreed that Nesser was the motivating force in the title run.
“A lot of it was us and a lot of what happened was Coach Nesser,” Fisher stated. “He was just the type of coach that might have screamed and hollered and all that crazy stuff and a lot of people said they went to the games just to watch him, but he
“Lash was a tough taskmaster,” Dileo said. “He would yell and scream, but he was like a second father to us and especially to me. He was my second father - I loved the guy, he was the best.”
“Coach Nesser’s record is 25 or 30 years of victory,” Wooddy who resides in San Diego offered. “He was bigger than life and he was four feet wide and all muscle and he scared everybody to death. He would chase everybody into the lockeroom screaming and corporal punishment was not unheard of. He was a born leader.”
Nesser missed a few games in 1965 because of surgery and assistant coaches Tamer Joseph and Larry Dolan guided the Eagles.
“To this day I don’t know how I got involved with helping Tamer during that brief period of time before I went to the service,” Dolan stated. “I don’t know if Coach Nesser put in a good word for me for whatever reason - I really don’t know I can’t remember exactly. Tamer did most of the work and I was just basically there for another body. I can’t take credit for anything really.”
Dolan who resides in Pittsburgh and does some officiating had this take on Coach Nesser.
“I think he touched more lives than any other person that I’ve met in my entire life,” Dolan said. “His methods may be viewed today as unconventional and maybe a little bit harsh, but he got results and he would do anything for his players. He was always there for you. He had no fear of anything - he had no fear of parents, priests and he showed no favoritism what so ever. He was aggressive and always played man-to-man defense. If you didn’t know how to play man-to-man you were on the bench sitting next to him.”
St. John’s played a lot of the public schools in those days and always played up in class.
“We played a lot of bigger schools and we also played against schools like St. Vincent Prep, Greensburg Central Catholic and schools in our league like Father Kolb and Geibel,” Fisher said.
“We were the smallest school in our division,” Dileo offered. “Even Geibel was bigger than us.”
The Eagles games against the Catholic schools in the section were not for the faint of heart.
“The rivalries with the Catholic schools were intense,” Fisher said. “One year we played in Masontown against Father Kolb and had to be escorted out of Masontown.”
“The rivalry with all four Catholic schools was intense,” Dileo opined. “St. Vincent hated us and at Father Kolb it was a small gym and the people were in the upper deck and they were throwing stuff at us and spitting on us - it was horrible. The four schools – no one liked each other. We were supposed to be Catholic schools, but no one liked each other. We went up to St. Vincent and they brought all the college students out to root against us and the priests and they were screaming at us and they were calling us a bunch of heathens - the rivalries were intense.”
Nesser used to toughen his teams up with scrimmages against the powerful Uniontown Red Raiders.
“We would scrimmage all the time against Uniontown,” Fisher stated. “Coach Nesser was the type of guy who had guys coming in off the street with teams and scrimmaging us. He used to bring in the football players from Uniontown. They didn’t care about making baskets - they just physically would abuse you.”
“We scrimmaged Uniontown,” Wooddy explained. “Lash put us in the fire.”
St. John’s posted d a 15-9 record overall, but was 7-1 in Greensburg Diocesan League play. That loop mark left theEagles and Connellsville Father Geibel tied for the top position. The Uniontown club won a playoff for the right to move into the PCIAA tournament.
“We had the playoff game at Uniontown High School that year against Geibel,” Fisher recalled. “And I have to say I had one of my better games. They had a kid named Buddy Albert and before we knew it we were down 7-0, then I stole the ball and made a basket and then made another steal and before they knew it- the score was 7-4 and before they knew it the game was over and they got bumped.”
St. John’s prevailed in the playoff game against Geibel 74-63. Then came three of the most exciting, most heart-stopping tournament games any team ever played with St. John’s coming from behind in the fourth quarter of all three of the contests. 73-70 over St. Francis of Clearfield, 80-72 over St. Joseph’s of Mount Oliver and finally 64-62 in the championship game.
“They were all tough games leading up to the championship. We didn’t blow anybody out,” Fisher said.
“We were the underdogs all through the playoffs,” Dileo explained. “No one gave us a shot at it.”
“It was a blur and it was almost overwhelming for all of us,” Wooddy recalled. “Game after game going up to the end. That’s the way all of them are – every game is your last unless you do it. First of all we had to be the best in the west and that was a standing rule and after you mastered the western Pennsylvania district – then you moved on to the final championships. The big thing you can say about Lash’s teams is we never won a game by more than 10 points.”
The Eagles faced Williamsport St. Joseph in the championship game at Uniontown High School. In 25 games during the season the Fighting Irish won 22 and held a scoring bulge over Ihe opposition of nearly 20 points per game. St. Joseph had averaged almost 66 points a game and had limited the opposition to 46 per outing. It was the third consecutive season the Williamsport parochial school had been the Eastern Regional representative in the championship match. It had lost the last two years in the title game to Greenville St. Michaels.
St. John’s trailed the Williamsport club early 10-0 and came back to make it a nip and tuck affair. The Eagles won 64-62. Phill Wooddy came up with the scoring leadership for the Eagles and in the game with 19 points. Larry Fisher was second for the Blue and Gold with 15 points and Nick Dileo came up with 14.
“One thing about the championship game,” Dileo recalled. “As I’m coming into the game and I look up everybody from the Red Raiders squad were there - the whole Uniontown team was there. We’re talking about Ray Parson, Yates, Radcliffe, Bryant, Ray Gillian and Wilfred Minor and they were all there cheering for us. All the guys from South Union were there and the guys from North Union were there - that really stood out for me.”
“The sixth man was on the floor with us that night at Uniontown,” Wooddy stated. “The gym was just unbelievable – you’d have to almost call timeout and the referees did – just to quiet it down because there was so much noise - it was unbelievable.”
Coach Nesser took time to savor the victory in game accounts from the Uniontown Evening Standard.
St. John’s, Coach James (Lash) Nesser said: “It was a long time coming. It feels wonderful.” For 12 out of 14 years, Nesser’s teams had won the Greensburg Diocesan title, without breaking through to the state crown.
“All the boys worked hard; they looked real good.”
Asked if he was concerned over a fast 10-0 lead by Williamsport at the start of the game, Lash said, “We went into the game tight, just like we always do. In three out of the four playoff games we went behind by at least eight points.”
As for the championship: “These kids earned it.”
Nesser was a big bear of a man, greatly beloved by the St. John’s student body and adult fans, too. He was smothered with hugs and kisses when the game ended.
He didn’t get down on his knees that night, as he had in the previous game against Mount Oliver. But at one point he executed a dancing leap that would have done credit to a ballet dancer, and lost a pocketful of his ever-present cigars. One of the officials kicked them off the floor.
“I got all the cigars back; nobody stepped on any of them,” Nesser grinned. “But then I gave ‘em all away after the game.”
The Uniontown custom was to honor it’s championship teams and St. John’s got the customary parade.
“We had a parade on Fayette Street on Monday after we won the title,” Fisher recalled. “I have pictures of it and I still have some of the articles from the games. I’m proud of the championship because we were the only team in St. John’s history to ever win a state championship.”
St. John’s High School closed its doors in 1976, but the memory of that state championship will never be forgotten.