Valley lauds ’79 champs
NEW KENSINGTON — Twenty-five years later, the championship season still brings back powerful emotions and vivid memories.
Valley’s 1979 PIAA Class AAA basketball champs gathered for a reunion Sunday evening at the Clarion Hotel. The homecoming included players, family members and fans of Valley’s only state championship team.
“After all of this time I look back and I realize how hard it is to do what we did,” team member and current Burrell coach Ron McNabb said.
“It is something that we’ll never forget,” he said.
The event, sponsored by the Arnold, Ken High and Valley Alumni Association, marked the first time all the living members of the 1979 team had been together to celebrate since the night they joined hands and hoisted the PIAA trophy at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena.
Former professional basketball player Bill Varner, a key starter on the Valley’s championship team, traveled from his Los Angeles home to attend the reunion.
“All the years of playing basketball, I used to close my eyes during the national anthem and I would picture Vern (Benson), (Ron) McNabb and all of them on both sides of me,” Varner said. “I always look back and thank them for the sacrafices they made for me.”
Varner, who went on to play for coach Digger Phelps at Notre Dame, recently retired after 19 years playing professional basketball in Europe.
Varner describes his high school coach, Jim Patterson, as the best coach he ever had.
“If I would have had a coach like Jim Patterson throughout my entire career I could have been more successful,” Varner said.
Every player agreeed that the 30-point PIAA quarterfinal win over Schenley, the defending Class AAA state champ, was the turning point in the season. Beating Schenley made the team believe it had peaked at the right time and could go higher.
“They (Schenley) had a half-dozen Division I players, and they were really good,” team member and current Valley coach Vern Benson said.
“We had Billy (Varner) and a bunch of players that were just as good but weren’t as noticed,” Benson said.
Patterson recalled Valley’s road to the championship was a long one that defined the character of the team.
The Vikings lost to a Burrell team that would finish as WPIAL Class AAA runner-up.
After losing to Burrell, Valley had to play Chartiers Valley in a PIAA play-in game to qualify as the seventh and lowest-seeded team coming out of the WPIAL.
“Everything just fell into place, and it was a great team effort,” Patterson said. “We jelled at the right time.”
The accomplishment has yet to be matched by any team in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
Valley relied on quickness and speed and went on to beat William Allen from Allentown, 72-66, in front of thousands of Valley students, alumni and residents from across the Alle-Kiski Valley.
“The ending was a dream come true,” Patterson said. “Since we had lost to Burrell there (Civic Arena), it was a chance to get even.
“We weren’t really focused on the PIAA championship. We were more focused on the WPIAL championship, and then it beacme a much bigger prize than the WPIAL championship,” he said.
Patterson credits the team’s intelligent play for its success that year. Valley finished the season with a 29-5 record.
“Our starting five all went on to play in college and become successful,” Patterson said.
Patterson remembered Gosby “Goose” Pryor, a starter on the state championship team who died in 1983 shortly after graduating from Gannon College as the team’s all-time leading scorer. Pryor was found along a road near Erie and his death was never fully explained by police.
Unity, team chemistry and family were words used to describe Valley’s title team.
“We were all friends, hung out together and after practice we were the best of friends,” said Benson.
Other members of the championship team were Chipper Harris, Don Abel, Wesley Carter, Fran Coury, Mike Fuquay, Joe Marzullo, Todd McCloud, David Merriwether, Mike Orr and Dale Parsons. All teammates attended the reunion except Parsons, who was in Chicago.