Marcus McCullough will never forget the last football game he played for Ringgold.
Or the ride home.
McCullough was one of many seniors on the last Ringgold football team that reached the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals back in 1987.
The highlights of the 1987 season have been a hot topic in the Ringgold community since the Rams (10-1) advanced to face unbeaten Central Valley (11-0) in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Chartiers Valley.
Friday will mark the first time Ringgold has reached the semifinals since that memorable ’87 season.
In 1987, the Rams, coached by Joe Ravasio, came out of nowhere to win the Big Ten Conference title and march to the semifinals. They were nipped by New Castle, 25-21, in the snow at Ambridge.
“I remember it snowed hard, real hard, from the time we got off the bus until the time we got home,” said McCullough, who was a fullback/linebacker on the team. “There was about four inches of snow on the field.
“We started fast, scored all of our points in the first half. Man, they just couldn’t stop our Wing-T offense. But we got too conservative in the second half and they closed the gap. They scored the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.”
New Castle scored on a fourth down from the Ringgold 1-yard line when Corey Eggleston nudged his way into the end zone.
David Strange, a massive defensive end for the Rams, said he still doesn’t think New Castle’s running back scored.
“To this day, I don’t think he crossed the goal line. No way,” said Strange. “There was so much snow and if there wasn’t any snow on the field the officials would have seen that he didn’t score.”
Ringgold linebacker/tight end Vince Nardone recalled the awful weather, saying, “I wore my girlfriend’s panty hose under my uniform because it helped to keep me warm.
“It was ugly all day, very cold and steady snow.”
It was bad enough that the Rams had their magical season end so abruptly, but then the trip home in the heavy snow made matters worse.
“It took us 2 1⁄2 hours to get home because of the snow,” McCullough said. “That was the longest bus ride I ever took. The game was played about a week before Thanksgiving and it just snowed like crazy.”
New Castle went on to lose the championship game to Aliquippa, 26-14.
“That team was made up of a such a special group of young men — not boys, but young men,” said Ravasio. “The leadership qualities on that team were just unbelievable.
“Nobody considered us at the start, but we had hard work and faith. To this day, I still talk about that team. What a special year it was.”
Looking back at the ’87 team, the trio of former Rams credits a great deal of their success to the program Ravasio put together.
“Coach Ravasio was on the cutting edge of things when it came to football, things like weightlifting and conditioning,” McCullough said. “Back then, with him it was a 12-month job and he worked us hard. And it paid off because we were stronger and more in shape than everyone we played. We wore on people.”
“Nobody expected much from us,” said Nardone. “We didn’t have a good year the year before and we didn’t have any Division I kids on our team.
“For sure, Pitt, Penn State and Ohio State weren’t looking at any of our players,” Nardone said. “We were just a close bunch of kids who played football together since we were 8 or 9 and loved playing the game.”
The previous year, the Rams were a young team and managed only two wins.
But, with plenty of upperclassmen coming back, Ravasio found success with a team that nobody gave a chance of succeeding in September. Ringgold fell one game of winning its first football title since 1982 when the Rams edged New Castle, 6-3, in the Class AAAA Division 2 championship game.
“We were just a bunch of guys who could play and got along,” said Strange. “We were molded into men by coach Ravasio and we all strived for the same goal — to win.”
“Coach Ravasio had us run that Wing-T (offense) and I’m telling you, we were good at it,” said McCullough. “We were real good at it. It was something.”
Some close calls
Even though Ringgold went 10-1-1 that season, there were some very close calls along the way.
The Rams beat the pre-season favorite, Brownsville, 14-7, in the third game of the season, and Trinity, 12-10, the following week.
In the win over Trinity, Darin Balliard kicked a game-winning 22-yard field in the final second.
“We scratched and clawed and won some awfully close games,” said Ravasio. “I will never forget that knuckleball field goal that snuck in to beat Trinity. They were the team to beat that year.”
The Rams played to a 14-14 tie with Canon-McMillan the seventh week of the season and followed that with a 9-3 win over rival Belle Vernon Area.
“That was a big game because their coach (Bill Connors) used to coach us, so we wanted to win really bad,” Nardone said.
After closing the season with a 27-21 win over Uniontown, the Rams edged Knoch, 14-7, in the first round of the playoffs.
“We had a lot of close games,” McCullough said. “Things didn’t come easy for us. We worked for everything we got. We just worked hard together.”
Words of advice
Admitting all three would love to have one more shot at playing to go to the WPIAL championship game, they all have words of advice for the current Rams.
“I would tell those young men to play every single play with the entire parts of their heart, mind and soul,” Ravasio said. “Don’t hold anything back and do whatever you can to have the most points at the end.
“It’s a moment in time that stands still for 48 minutes,” Ravasio added. “And you will talk about it for years and years. You will replay that game 1,000 times in your mind. So do what it takes to win it.”
“I would tell them to seize the moment,” said McCullough. “This is an opportunity that doesn’t always present itself. It’s really special. And big things can happen to a group after winning big games.
“I wish them all so much luck. I’m so proud of what they have accomplished.”
“Tell those guys to finish the job for us. Finish the job,” Nardone said. “I’m going to be rooting for them hard. I’m bringing the family back for the game.”
“Tell them to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them because they will never forget it,” said Strange. “It will stay with you either way, so make the most out of it.”
That sentiment holds true for McCullough, Nardone and Strange, as none of them has forgotten what happened on that snowy November day in Ambridge 27 years ago.
Where are they now?
Today, McCullough still keeps tabs on the Rams. A maintenance department worker at East Allegheny, he has coached football for 23 years at Clairton, Monessen, Yough, Ringgold, McKeesport, Summit Academy and currently serves on the staff at South Allegheny.
Nardone, who worked many years with the FBI, has a successful law firm in Columbus, Ohio.
Strange lives in Delaware, where he works in student support at Kirk Middle School, which is part of the Christiana School District.
Ravasio has retired after 38 years as a teacher, many with the Ringgold School District. He lives in Monongahela.
Jeff Oliver is a sports editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2666 or [email protected].