50 years ago, Burrell captured ‘unbelievable’ WPIAL baseball championship

Saturday, June 8, 2024 | 7:01 AM

Five decades haven’t dimmed Tim Cavitt’s memory of taking the field as Burrell’s starting pitcher in the 1974 WPIAL baseball championship game at Three Rivers Stadium.

“I remember walking to the mound at Three Rivers to warm up,” Cavitt said. “It seemed like the mound was so big compared to the high school mounds. I wasn’t really nervous until the PA announcer said: ‘ladies and gentlemen, please rise for the national anthem.’ That’s when I realized where we were and looked around and thought ‘what am I doing here?’ My knees started shaking a bit. But then I threw the first pitch, and we just played our game.”

Cavitt and his Burrell teammates shook off any big-game jitters to defeat North Hills, 6-4, before 5,000 fans in what was then Pittsburgh’s major-league ballpark. The 50th anniversary of that momentous victory is Monday.

“Here we are — 50 years later. It’s unbelievable,” said David Ross, a senior shortstop on the team. “Everyone elevated their game, and we did what we had to do to win.”

With a senior-laden squad, the Bucs came into the 1974 season with high hopes. Cavitt sensed that Burrell coach Jim Bosin realized the team’s potential during preseason practices.

“He was always easy going in the previous years, but at the start of that senior year, you could hear the difference in his voice,” Cavitt said. “He was more strict and stern. He knew we had a lot of talent. The players realized it too, but I don’t think we were sure until we started playing games.”

A senior right-hander, Cavitt was considered one of the WPIAL’s top pitchers.

“Tim had a great fastball and curve. He just knew how to pitch,” said Tony Roperti, a junior outfielder on the team who now lives in Murrysville. “And he was a pit bull. You just weren’t going to beat him.”

Cavitt combined with fellow right-hander Tom Bracken to provide the Bucs with a formidable one-two punch on the mound.

“Tim Cavitt and Tom Bracken were very special,” Ross said. “They were two solid anchors to our team.”

When Cavitt was on the mound, the Bucs’ starting lineup typically featured catcher Chuck “Punky” Bauman, first baseman and No. 3 hitter John Liput, second baseman and leadoff hitter Rudy Buono, shortstop Ross, third baseman Jay Storrick, left fielder Larry Hess, center fielder Larry Lecnar and right fielder Roperti. Cavitt played outfield when he wasn’t pitching, and junior Terry Kelly shared time at third.

“There weren’t too many teams that could match us position by position,” said Cavitt, who lives in Avonmore. “We weren’t cocky, but we didn’t go into any game thinking we were going to lose, including the playoffs and the championship.”

In those days, only the section-winning teams advanced to the WPIAL baseball playoffs. There also were no classifications, such as Class AAA or AA, leaving Burrell to compete in Section 8 with larger schools, including Butler, Highlands and Kiski Area.

“We really didn’t think about having to play bigger schools,” Cavitt said.

Roperti added: “We were not a big school, but we were a good baseball school.”

The Bucs’ only regular-season losses were to section rivals Springdale and Highlands.

Springdale’s Terry Dreher threw a three-hitter, and I threw a two-hitter and they beat us 2-1,” Cavitt said.

Burrell defeated Butler, 6-1, on the final day of the regular season to clinch sole possession of the section title and a WPIAL playoff berth.

The WPIAL scheduled the Bucs’ first three playoff games at Highlands, just a short bus ride across the Allegheny River.

In the opener, Burrell ousted Ford City, 3-0. The Sabers’ John Procyszyn broke up Cavitt’s no-hitter in the seventh inning. After a walk, Cavitt struck out losing pitcher Dave Smith to end the game with the tying run at the plate.

Bracken was the winning pitcher in a 2-1 victory over Shenango in the quarterfinals. Lecnar and Cavitt reached base in the fourth inning. Hess dropped down a bunt, and Shenango pitcher Gary Steph overthrew first, enabling Lecnar and Cavitt to score.

The Bucs beat Penn-Trafford, 1-0, in the semifinals. Cavitt tripled to right center and then scampered home on a wild throw to third. It was Burrell’s only hit against P-T’s Jim Kostyak.

“It wasn’t like we won those playoff games by big margins,” Ross said. “We were able to play strong defense and capitalize on our opportunities.”

Burrell advanced to Three Rivers to play North Hills, a team led by Frank Thomas Jr., the son of the Pirates slugger of the 1950s.

“A big story before the game was that little Burrell was going up against powerhouse North Hills,” Roperti said. “Maybe we were just too dumb to realize it. We went into the game confident that we could win.”

The Bucs showed up on the artificial turf at Three Rivers wearing new uniforms borrowed from the Burrell American Legion team.

“We inaugurated those uniforms during the championship game,” said Ross, whose father, Jim, managed the Legion squad. “They were the two-piece style uniforms worn by the Pirates back in the 1970s. They were pretty nice.”

Cavitt’s mound opponent for the WPIAL final was Thom Dornbrook, who eventually was an offensive lineman on the Steelers’ Super Bowl XIV championship team.

“I remember looking out at this monster of a guy on the mound and thinking: ‘I have to bat against him?’ ” Roperti said.

True to form, the Bucs weren’t fazed by the challenge. Burrell jumped to a 6-0 lead in the second inning behind base hits by Lecnar, Hess, Bauman, Ross and Liput as well as some North Hills miscues.

The Indians rallied with a run in the fourth and three in the seventh inning.

“North Hills came up with some timely hits,” Cavitt said. “They had a couple of ground balls that I thought would be easy outs, but they picked up speed on the tartan turf and got through for hits.”

With two outs and the tying run at the plate, the Indians’ Dan Skinner drove a ball into the right-center gap.

“When it was first hit, I thought they were going to tie up the game,” Roperti said. “I had a bead on it, but our center fielder (Lecnar) called me off and made the catch. It was a great play, and everyone came running out to the outfield to hug each other.”

At the time, Pennsylvania did not hold state baseball playoffs. As a result, Burrell ended the season with a 17-2 record and WPIAL gold.

“There’s always some luck involved, and you get some breaks to win a game,” Cavitt said. “Overall, I think we were the best team in the WPIAL that year.”

After graduating from Burrell, Cavitt played at Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst until an arm injury ended his playing days. He’s retired after working at Norfolk Southern for 34 years.

Ross competed in football and baseball at Washington & Jefferson, before deciding to concentrate on football. He is the president of Atlantic Realty in Tysons Corner, Va., and is on W&J’s board of trustees. In recognition of his family’s financial support, the school’s athletic facilities include the Ross Memorial Park baseball complex and the James David Ross Family Recreation Center.

Roperti played baseball at Pitt. A pharmacist, he owns Towne & Country Pharmacy in New Kensington.

Right now, there are no plans to celebrate the Bucs’ baseball title officially. However, Burrell’s Class of 1974 is scheduled to hold its 50th reunion later this summer.

“With people in town for the reunion, it might be a good idea to try to get together with everyone (on the team), including Coach Bosin,” Cavitt said.


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