WPIAL open tournament in 1984 helped pave way for Latrobe’s future success

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Thursday, February 25, 2021 | 7:30 PM


Neal Fenton was a junior at Latrobe in 1984, the year the WPIAL opened its playoff doors to everybody.

The first open tournament, more of a trial run idea than one reflecting the damage done by a global pandemic like this year, welcomed any team far and wide within the confines of District 7.

“Beverly Hills Cop” was No. 1 at the box office, and Prince topped the music charts with, “When Doves Cry” in ’84. Villanova was gearing up for an epic upset over Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament, and Akeem Olajuwon was about to become the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick before adding “H” to his first name.

Oh, and Latrobe was building the foundation for a pretty good boys basketball team.

“I was a junior that year,” Fenton said. “Not sure if we got a bye, but our first game was at home with Laurel Highlands. They had a really good player that I think at the time led the WPIAL in scoring (Reuben Davis). We ended up losing to McKeesport at the Pitt field house on a free-throw lane violation.”

Latrobe entered a 42-team Class AAAA bracket.

While the Wildcats had an early exit that year — the best was yet to come — Fenton recalls the oddity that was the open postseason.

“It sort of cheapened the tournament,” he said. “Back then, there were many more teams per section and only the top two made the WPIAL playoffs. So making the playoffs was a big accomplishment. That year, we were the second team out of our section in (Class) AAA with Hempfield being first.”

Not that Fenton, whose son, Reed, is a starting sophomore guard at Lehigh, where Neal played, has soured on the idea of an open field.

“Now there are so many teams per section that make the playoffs, I am in favor of the open tournament,” Neal Fenton said. “I feel it should probably be the norm.”

Some current coaches, like Latrobe’s Brad Wetzel and Tom Esposito of Derry, also think the WPIAL should consider the free-for-all format more often.

The mid-80s was a grand time for Westmoreland County boys basketball. In ’85, Latrobe rebounded to win the WPIAL Class AAAA title. Norwin won the classification in ’86 and ’88.

“In ’85, we were actually tied for second in our section, with Norwin and the Rasp boys (John and Mike),” Fenton said. “Ties went to the tourney. Kiski (Area) was undefeated that year with (6-11) Phil Nevin and Tony Petrarca (Duquesne commit). We lost the coin toss and entered the Quad-A tourney with a pigtail game. There were 27 teams in the tourney, I believe. We ended up winning the WPIAL. That is why I am now in favor of an open tournament.”

An interesting sidenote to ’84: Fenton said Latrobe, Norwin and Hempfield had a “mini” tournament at Greensburg Salem after they tied for first in Section 1 to determine playoff seeding.

“Hempfield won the coin toss and got a bye,” Fenton said. “We beat Norwin to knock them out and end their season. We lost to Hempfield and became the No. 2 team our of our section for the playoffs.”

WPIAL boys champions in ’84 were: Farrell (AAAA), Beaver Falls (AAA), Washington (AA) and Cornell (A), and girls winners were Seton La Salle (AAAA), North Catholic (AAA), Mt. Alvernia (AA) and Geibel (A).

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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