Winning a WPIAL title in any sport is a great accomplishment, winning two in a row is even more special, but can you fathom winning seven consecutive titles?
Once upon a time there was a swimming program from Fayette County that captured seven consecutive WPIAL titles. In the late 1930’s into the 1940’s the Connellsville Cokers were a WPIAL
Connellsville strung together seven straight WPIAL swimming titles from 1938 through 1944 and after having their streak snapped in 1945 the Cokers bounced back to capture another in 1946.
The architect of Connellsville swimming success was the man who built the program from scratch, former coach Alfred “Red” Barr who guided the Cokers to five straight titles before leaving for the Navy in 1942.
“He was in charge of all the gym classes at Connellsville and was the trainer for the varsity football team, junior varsity football coach and track coach plus his creation the swimming team,” former Coker swimmer Martin Griglak,82, recalled. “He was a very significant person in Connellsville athletics.”
“Coach Barr was next to my father the finest man I’ve ever known,” said 82-year old Harold Stefl who starred on some of those Coker teams. “He was something else – he was a super-super guy.”
Barr who would later coach swimming at Southern Methodist University was an innovative coach.
“The depression was on in the 1930’s and the only recreation that kids had in town was going to the river,” Griglak explained. “The kids swam everyday in the river and they had to go against the current and as a result they became strong swimmers. Coach Barr started to pick out kids coming out of sixth grade and started teaching them how to swim. In Connellsville you had grade schools up to sixth grade and then an intermediate school called Cameron and seventh and eighth grade were there and then you had four years of high school.
“When the kids went from sixth grade to seventh that’s when he would pick them up. There was actually competitive swimming and training through the eighth grade. By the time they were freshman in high school they were pretty accomplished swimmers. He had a pipeline.”
“He didn’t discourage us from swimming in the Yough River,” Stefl recalled. “It did make us stronger swimmers.”
Stefl was also a center on the Connellsville football squad and later was captain of the football team at Bucknell University.
“I had no desire to play basketball,” Stefl explained. “Swimming was the only other thing we had then. Rather than sit on my duff I figured I’d rather do that.
“Coach Barr lived on the hill in Connellsville and we walked home many times and we developed a great friendship.”
Connellsville had to overcome some obstacles along the way. The pool at the old Fairview school was only 20 yards long and there were no facilities for diving. So the Cokers in competition conceded first and second places in diving or seven points, to their foe while taking third, one point. Connellsville started every meet down 7 to 1 and still won.
“We had to spot everybody points going in,” Griglak remembered. “A newspaper article always stuck in my mind from the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. The war was on and we had gasoline rationing and food stamps. It was a hardship to travel to the different meets.
“The newspaper in the article suggested that because of Connellsville’s dominance they should send all of the swimming medals to Connellsville and just save on the gas.”
Barr did not return to Connellsville after his military service and submitted his resignation to the Connellsville school board and then became the head coach at SMU in 1946.
W.L. Lewis took over the Connellsville swim team in 1943 and then the Cokers were coached by John “Moose” Love.
Coach Barr had a profound and lasting affect on the boys he coached at Connellsville.
“He formed what they called a “Leaders Club,” Griglak offered. “To be in the “Leaders Club” you had to be an athlete and then you had to have what he considered the qualifications to lead – you had to be a junior or a senior.
“Everyday we had to take one of our class periods and either work in the gym or the swimming pool. We would teach other students. He did a lot of different things to make kids physically active. Coach Barr was adored and I don’t think any teacher had the charisma that he did.”
“Coach Barr was a molder of men,” Stefl stated. “Other than my father he was the most influential man in my life.”
The Cokers continued to thrive even after Barr left the program.
“There was a big difference under Coach Love,” Griglak stated. “After all there was only one Barr. Love was a football coach, but he tried to do the best he could.
“The training under Barr was arduous, but it changed under Love. Coach Love tried to do the best he could and we were lucky to have him.”
“W.L Lewis a social studies teacher took over for awhile,” Stefl said. “Lewis was a great supporter of swimming and he was a super guy. Coach Love did the best he could and kept us working and did the best he could under the circumstances. Love was a friendly guy a likeable guy.”
Stefl won a state title in the 220 free style his senior year. The relay team finished second in the state that year.
“After I won the state in 1944 – the first thing that I did was send a telegram to Coach Barr at SMU,” Stefl stated.
Connellsville’s swimming accomplishments have faded into history, but they should be remembered and celebrated.
“I am so proud of what we accomplished,” Stefl said. “I’m delighted you are writing this because we had a great football team in 1942 and they were honored and I almost got up and said this was wonderful, but the swimming team did it seven times in a row.”