Uniontown High School boy’s basketball has a rich history.
The Red Raiders have captured 47 section titles, eight WPIAL titles and four state titles. The last PIAA championship was in 1981.
The Red Raiders had slowly been building to that championship.
“It was similar to Babe Ruth pointing to the fence and saying I’m going to hit a home run,” former Red Raider Eric Fee stated. “One of the things about that whole championship was really from the time we were in junior high at two different junior high schools.
“There was an expectation this was going to be the next big team for Uniontown, that this group of people coming up had a chance to win the state championship, and the expectation was from the time we were in junior high school and not even on the same team, that we were going to win the state championship.
“That’s a lot of pressure put on individuals, but the community and the fans felt that way. The realization is it came to fruition, and that’s probably the most amazing thing.
“Over all those years, you are talking four or five years of preparation before it actually happened. That’s an amazing thing I think.”
“All five starters on the 1981 team dressed varsity as sophomores,” former Raider star Earl Minor recalled. “Coach Nesser would insert us into the game as a group.
“Anytime you get to see varsity action with a group of five that knew each others game, eventually the junior year it was supposed to get better and it did and our senior year, that’s when it took off. Coach Nesser saw the group we had was special and he played us as sophomores.”
In 1978-79 when that group of players were sophomores, the Red Raiders went 21-6 and lost to Latrobe in the WPIAL playoffs 61-55. In 1979-80 as juniors the Raiders finished 28-4, beating Mount Lebanon 73-60, Central Catholic 71-60 and falling to Beaver Falls in the WPIAL playoffs 64-56.
In the PIAA playoffs the Red Raiders defeated Perry 81-55 and Altoona 82-78, before Erie McDowell ended their title hopes downing the Raiders 65-60. The stage was set for a magical 1980-81 campaign.
“We came close as juniors,” Minor offered. “We had everybody coming back as seniors, so we knew what we had to do to obtain the goal of a state championship. That run as juniors primed us for the title run.”
Uniontown went 32-2 on their way to a state title. The Raiders marched to the WPIAL championship beating Norwin 76-62, Bethel Park 91-53 and defeated Aliquippa in the WPIAL title game 80-67.
In the PIAA playoffs they dispatched Erie Prep 50-41, Brashear 79-65, Erie McDowell 66-50, Altoona 80-73 and won the state championship with a 73-61 win over Springfield Delco.
“I think if you really look at that team there was no way it should win any major championship,” Fee opined. “We didn’t have one dominant player or even two or three dominant players.
“It was actually deeper than five people, because we were able to bring in two or three people off the bench easily and not miss a step. We had a lot of depth and that team was very unselfish as far as far as everybody knowing their roles.
“Everybody knew their roles, some people were better scorers and some were better defensive players or rebounders. We didn’t really feel any individual pressure.”
“The key was we were balanced,” Minor stated. “On a given night you never knew who was going to have that breakout night. We had great team work on that team.
“We weren’t very big, but we had great speed and we used it to make up for our height disadvantage.”
The 1981 Red Raiders were coached by the legendary James “Lash” Nesser and his able assistant, former Uniontown great Willie Bryant.
“Coach Nesser coached the game and he never over coached,” Minor said. “He coached us just the way we needed to be coached at that time.
“He had an outstanding assistant in Willie Bryant, who was a good coach and he knew basketball. They had very different personalities, but they got their point across.”
Minor had a career high 29 points in the 73-61 championship game victory over Springfield Delco.
Springfield Coach Gerry Quedenfeld figured the Red Raiders would have defeated his Cougars even if Minor had decided to sit out the game. “Everybody on that team gave us a problem,” Quedenfeld said when he was asked about Minor’s performance.
“That’s what’s so tough about them. “They’re team-oriented. Stop one of them, you haven’t stopped anything. “They were the best team in the state. They moved the ball the quickest of any team we saw this season.”
The Red Raiders managed to show their balance despite Minor’s big total. Coach Nesser used just six players until the final minutes of the contest, and three of them besides Minor scored in double figures: Craig Harris had 14 points, Eric Fee 12 and sixth-man Ken Holt 11.
“I doubt I’ll ever have a team like them again,” Nesser said following the victory over Springfield Delco. “We’ll probably have a decent team next season. But you just don’t get teams with that size playing the way they played.”
“It was the state championship I never got because of Schenley and I finally got a little redemption,” Coach Bryant stated. “A little bit anyway as an assistant coach.
“They were a great group of kids - their passing was spectacular and the way they played as a team was just great. What they lacked in other areas they made up with their teamwork.”
Winning the state title was a highlight for the 1981 Red Raiders and the whole Uniontown community.
“That was the best thing about winning the title, the excitement of the fan base,” Minor said. “Winning it for Uniontown, a small community and it brought the whole town together and that was special.”
“I think winning the title was one of the most special things in my life,” Fee explained. “There were a lot of great things that have happened to me, even to some extent before then.
“I was fortunate and I’ve had a lot of fantastic things happen to me, but that will always be one of the greatest, and when you look at the level it’s a huge accomplishment.”