1946 New Ken football, 1979 Valley basketball teams headed for Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame

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Saturday, April 27, 2024 | 5:36 PM


The Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame has been honoring the best of the best in local athletics for more than a half century. During that period, the organization has welcomed nearly 400 individuals into its ranks.

For the first time, the A-K hall will admit teams:

• The 1946 WPIAL champion New Kensington Red Raiders football squad.

• The 1979 Valley Vikings state championship boys basketball team.

The Red Raiders and Vikings will be recognized — along with eight individuals — during the 53rd induction ceremony May 4 at the Pittsburgh Shriners Center in Harmar.

1946 New Ken Red Raiders

Led by the legendary Willie Thrower, the ’46 Red Raiders are considered by many as the greatest high school football team in A-K Valley history.

“I’ve heard the stories about the 1946 team and how special it was, both on and off the field,” said Willie’s son, Melvin Thrower, who will accept the induction. “The team was so great that it brought the whole New Ken community together. … The fact that it will be the first team (inducted into the A-K hall) is historic in itself.”

After losing the WPIAL title game to Donora in 1945, the Red Raiders won the first of back-to-back titles in 1946, finishing with an 8-0 record.

New Ken and Vandergrift were the only undefeated WPIAL teams heading into the regular-season finale between the two local schools. There were no WPIAL football playoffs back in those days. As a result, the league decided the game between the Red Raiders and Blue Lancers would be played for the title.

There was so much interest in the showdown that the game was moved to Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Nearly 18,000 fans looked on as Ken High prevailed, 21-0, behind three Tony Kotowski touchdowns.

In addition to Thrower and Kotowski, top players for the Red Raiders included backs George “Cubby” France, Harold Vestrand, Bill Horrell and Vince Pisano and linemen Dick and Harry Tamburo, Thomas “Sonny” Ciancutti, Flint Greene and Fred George.

“The team was more than a team. It was a family,” Melvin Thrower said. “They stuck together, even after their football careers. They were all close, on and off the field. I like to call them a ‘Band of Brothers,’ because it was a brotherhood of men who loved and cared about each other.”

That brotherhood was put to the test at the end of the 1946 season. Ken High was invited to play in Miami’s Peanut Bowl, as long as Thrower and Greene stayed home because of Florida’s Jim Crow laws. In response, the Red Raiders voted to not play in the game unless all team members were included.

Willie Thrower went on to star at Michigan State, along with a number of his high school teammates. He became the first African-American quarterback in the National Football League, playing for the Chicago Bears in 1953. Dick Tamburo eventually served as athletic director at Arizona State.

Melvin Thrower credited then-New Ken coach Don Fletcher with bringing together a group of young men from various ethnic backgrounds.

“I can’t imagine what my father would be thinking about right now,” Melvin said. “It would not have been possible without coach Fletcher. He was a father to some of the kids who didn’t have one. My grandfather passed away when my father was young. Coach Fletcher became a father figure to him. My dad always called him ‘coach.’ ”

1979 Valley Vikings

With a lineup featuring future college standouts Bill Varner, Chipper Harris, Ron McNabb and Goose Pryor, the Vikings came into the 1979 high school basketball season with high expectations.

“We thought we had the best team in the WPIAL,” said McNabb, the starting point guard.

But rival Burrell knocked off Valley in the WPIAL playoff quarterfinals, forcing the Vikings to win a four-team, play-in tournament just to qualify for the PIAA playoffs.

“When Burrell beat us, it was a devastating defeat,” McNabb said. “After the WPIALs, we had a team meeting and really dedicated ourselves to the state playoffs. Something just made us click, and we really came together.”

The Vikings defeated Altoona and South Hills in the opening rounds of the state tournament. In the quarterfinals, Valley dethroned defending state champion Schenley, 75-45, before a packed house at IUP’s Memorial Fieldhouse.

“Schenley had beaten us by 13 points at Valley (in the regular season),” said McNabb, who starred at IUP in college. “They had a phenomenal team led by Larry Anderson. The amount of talent on the floor was incredible, and it was the biggest crowd they had had there. It was a tremendous high school atmosphere. It turned out to be the best game that we played. On the bus ride back to New Ken, we realized that we really had a good shot to win the state title.”

The Vikings won a close decision over WPIAL champion Beaver Falls to advance to the state finals against Allentown Allen at Pittsburgh Civic Arena.

“It was an overwhelming home crowd, especially compared to playing someplace out east,” McNabb said. “It’s tough playing and shooting in those big arenas. We had played at the Civic Arena before, so it was an advantage for us.”

Valley brought home the PIAA gold medal with a 72-66 triumph before more than 7,100 fans. The 6-foot-6 Varner’s dunk put the finishing touches on the victory. The Vikings finished with a 29-5 record.

Varner earned all-state honors before going on to a productive college career at Notre Dame. He was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the ninth round of the 1983 NBA Draft. Varner gained success playing professionally in Europe for 19 seasons.

Harris went on to help lead Robert Morris to its first NCAA tournament appearance and was the first member of Robert Morris’ basketball Ring of Honor. Pryor starred at Gannon and still ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in several offensive categories.

“Unfortunately, Chipper and Goose have passed away. But I think they would really be proud to be there (for the induction) with us,” McNabb said.

McNabb expects a good turnout for the May 4 banquet. Varner is scheduled to travel from his home in Las Vegas. Besides those still living in the A-K Valley, team members are coming in from Chicago, Florida and New Jersey. Former assistant coach Jimmy Elias also will be in attendance, McNabb said.

“We stay in touch as much as we can, with the guys being spread out and busy,” he said. “When we get back together, it’s like we’ve been in contact for all of those years.”

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