FEATURE from steubenvillecentralcrusaders.com, published 9/15/2011

Coach Korab, Players Recall their Magical 1971 Season

Written by Mario Annibaldi

When talking about Steubenville Catholic Central’s 1971 Ohio state championship football team, most fans focus on the numbers. After all, this was a Class AA team that played eight Class AAA opponents, held them to a total of 26 points and never trailed once during the season in achieving a perfect 10-0 record. In doing so, it gave two teams their only loss of the season and provided one of two defeats to another pair. It also had two running backs with over 1000 yards rushing apiece.

But ask team members to summarize the season, and you will get a completely different answer. Mike Mehalik described their season as "just a bunch of great friends who had a great time and had a pretty good football team." Dave Tuttle summed up the season in one word, "Awesome," then continued, "We played as a unit and as friends." These friendships began as soon as the group came together as freshmen and greatly contributed to the success of the team. As Ray Saccoccia put it, "It was a very close team and we are still friends today. That’s how championships are built."

This is the story of how this team developed.

Freshman (1968) and sophomore (1969) seasons

An estimated 65 to 70 kids tried out for Central’s freshman football squad in the summer of 1968. This number, large for the school by today’s standards, was the result of a vibrant parochial grade school system consisting of approximately seven schools, a few of which might graduate 60 or more students in a given year. Future stars of Central over the course of decades were introduced to the competitive nature of Ohio Valley football in the parochial league of Steubenville.

One player who stood out early in freshman practices was Tuttle. Dave Moitis remembers him as "the stud of the team. He was just better than everyone else. He was the biggest and toughest guy on the team." Tuttle was selected as the quarterback.

Their coach was George Sogan, known as an "in your face coach who demanded the most from you." Sogan’s young team achieved astonishing results. They rolled through a seven game schedule undefeated and un-scored upon while tallying over 180 points. Included in this run were two victories each over rivals Steubenville Big Red and Wintersville. Perhaps more impressive was their win over the reserve team, a feat that had never been accomplished by a freshman team at Central in anyone’s memory.

Several players cite this early success as a critical factor in the team’s accomplishments three years later. According to Paul Carapellotti, "It was important to go 7-0." Saccoccia felt that having beaten Big Red twice gave the group the confidence to defeat them as seniors. Mehalik added, "We knew we were good from day one."

As the team achieved success on the field, they began to gel as a cohesive unit. "We bonded as freshmen and became friends," Tuttle noted. He also tells of the lofty goal that members of the team set. "We made a pact that when we became seniors, we would be undefeated."

The next season, a number of sophomores made the varsity team. As Rick Alessi said, "A lot of us played as sophomores. We got our feet wet and found out what high school football was all about."

Several sophomores achieved early success at this level. Halfback Don Thorn scored three touchdowns in the first two games. The Crusaders also unveiled another weapon in left-footed, soccer-style place kicker Emil Ros, who converted seven extra points in Central’s 64-0 opening win against Lancaster Reemelin.

In total, six sophomores earned varsity letters for Tom Duff’s 5-5 team that season: Tuttle, Alessi, Mehalik, Ros, Thorn and Terry Lelli.

The majority of sophomores played on the reserve team, however. Among them were guard/linebacker Moitis and linemen Tom Perko, Tom Rice and Mike Sullivan. This may seem surprising, given that each contributed significantly in later seasons. At this time, though, they had not fully grown.

For instance, Moitis weighed around 120 pounds. "I could have played in the parochial league with its 120 pound limit as a sophomore," he stated. Perko was in a similar situation. "I dwarfed him as a freshman. He grew seven inches from freshman to senior year," Tuttle recalled. In fact, a coach at the time flatly remarked at a social gathering that "Moitis and Perko will never play a varsity game at Central." This comment served as a motivating factor for Moitis.

Junior season (1970)

In the off season, Tom Korab replaced Duff as head coach. He immediately set the highest standards. "There was never any talk about losing a game. Even in 1970, it was 10-0, 10-0, 10-0," said Mehalik.

Once practices began, the new leader began to evaluate his talent. As he explained, "I would write down the names of the top 22 athletes, and then find positions for them."

One of the key switches was at the quarterback position. Tuttle described when he found out: "As a sophomore, I was predicted to be the starting quarterback as a junior. Then Tom Korab said to me, ‘You’re no longer my quarterback. You’re my halfback.’ Man, was I bummed out." Korab selected senior Angelo Antonucci as the signal caller, remarking "It was amazing that he had not played earlier. I did not find him on any film from 1969."

Korab made another decision that was somewhat surprising. He named Moitis, now 50 pounds heavier than the previous season but still a junior with no varsity experience, as a co-captain. Korab’s reasoning was simple: "His work ethic was unequalled. He was a natural leader." This was believed to be the first time that Central had a junior captain.

In addition to these personnel moves, Korab introduced an unbalanced line formation to the offense, in which both tackles line up on the right side, between guard and end. He explained that several teams for which he was an assistant had gone undefeated using it. "I knew it and felt comfortable with it."

The team had a strong junior presence, with the starting offensive lineup showing Tuttle at fullback, Thorn at halfback, Mehalik at wingback, Mike Homol at center, Alessi at guard, and Sullivan at tackle. Ends Saccoccia and Bill Rankin also emerged as regulars later in the season. Seniors John Tines and Bob Campana added strength to the line.

The Crusaders finished the season with a 6-4 record, a mark that is deceiving considering that two of the losses occurred as a result of an opposing score with less than 3:30 to go in the game, while other defeats were by margins of only 8 and 13 points.

A particular tough loss came at the hands of Big Red in the finale. Late in the fourth quarter, with Central leading 10-7, Big Red faced a fourth and long situation near midfield. The Crusaders expected a punt and had their return team on the field, but were surprised by a 35 yard pass completion. Big Red scored shortly afterwards and won 14-10. A Big Red assistant coach told Korab after the game that their staff thought it was third down, and that they would have punted had they known the correct down.

Despite the obvious disappointment, this game marked one of the important milestones in the evolution of the team when Mehalik moved from wingback to halfback. Alessi tells of the reaction to this switch: "Things came together when they put Mehalik at tailback. Everyone went, ‘Wow! How good is this guy?’ That got everybody’s expectations up for the next year."

Soon the precocious group of freshmen that aspired to be undefeated as seniors would get their opportunity.

Senior season (1971)

A remarkable statistic that Korab noticed was that over half of the points yielded by his defense in 1970 occurred in the fourth quarter (60 of 107 points, to be exact). He knew he had to work on conditioning and strength training, as well as refreshing and substituting players. Tuttle pointed out that Central nearly always was at a size disadvantage, and would be more so due to the graduation of Tines, Campana and 240 pound Joe DiCarlo. Consequently, improved strength was even more important in the new season. Thanks to a two to three day per week lifting program, "By 1971, we were so strong that I don’t think anyone ever mentioned size," Korab recalls. Speed was also a weapon in their arsenal, as all but one starter ran 40 meters in under five seconds.

 

Forecasts for the season were higher than usual. A team preview in the Steubenville Herald-Star featured the headline "Korab Looks Ahead To Big Season At Central" and told of the bumper crop of 18 lettermen returning. The roster consisted of 27 seniors, 14 of whom lettered in 1970.

This wealth of experienced players would allow Korab to rotate more players into the game and substitute more freely. It also freed Mehalik to play only on offense, a move that he felt achieved positive results. "It made a big difference. I was fresher," he said.

Still there were a few holes to fill. Perko and Rice, along with returning starter Sullivan alternated at offensive tackle where Campana had starred, while junior John Harper filled the void left by Tines at guard. Junior John Colaiacovo won the quarterback job. Korab admitted that initially "Collie was a question mark on a predominantly senior team, but the seniors accepted him. He could throw the ball, but we didn’t throw it much."

The rest of the backfield returned, with Tuttle at fullback, Mehalik at halfback and Thorn at wingback. Saccoccia and Rankin filled the end positions.

Homol returned at center as did Alessi at weak side guard. At around 160 pounds each, the two were undersized linemen, even by 1971 standards. Their success as two-year starters lies in their other attributes. "They’d bite your leg off if they couldn’t block you," said Korab. Saccoccia called Alessi, who collected a total of eleven letters across three sports, one of the four best multi-sport athletes in Central history. Alessi, in turn, said of Homol, "He was just a good football player."

On defense, Central played a 4-4. Lelli and Perko were at end. Sullivan, Rice, senior Greg Corbin and junior Dave Smith would split time at tackle. Moitis and Tuttle manned the inside linebacker positions with senior Mark Chaytor and junior Augie Carinci on the outside. Carapellotti was at cornerback, and Rocky Augustine, Colaiacovo and Thorn also split time in the defensive backfield.

Ros was back for his third season as kicking specialist and junior Nick Fornsaglio handled punting duties. Korab placed a strong emphasis on special teams, with the team practicing it daily during the summer. He saw it as a good opportunity to allow the younger kids to play. Regarding the 1971 special teams unit, he said "They could have been starters on previous teams."

Carapellotti describes the team’s confident mood: "We knew if we played up to our abilities, we could win every game. We went into each game expecting to win." Saccoccia added, "We knew it would take a very good team to beat us." Tuttle emphasized that "we did not use the word ‘failure.’ It was not in our vocabulary."

Despite the optimism, the road would not be an easy one. The Class AA Crusaders would face eight AAA opponents. Central tuned up with scrimmage decisions over Claymont and Akron Buchtel, by 4-1 and 4-2 scores, respectively.

They opened the season against Cleveland John Hay in a manner that would become a familiar pattern throughout the season: a performance by an unyielding defense that gave up only one first down and 28 total yards, en route to a convincing 34-0 victory.

Next up was a visit to Wellsburg to face Brooke. With the final seconds ticking away in the first half of a scoreless tie, Colaiacovo tossed a 67 yard touchdown pass to Mehalik. "It was called the ‘Mehalik Special.’ It was basically a wheel route. Collie made a hell of a pass. That really turned the game in our favor," Mehalik said. Saccoccia added, "It really ignited the team." Another touchdown and safety in the second half produced a final score of 16-0.

Back at Harding Stadium, the tough Wintersville Warriors would be the next test. Once again, Mehalik provided the spark when he ran 40 yards for a score on the team’s initial possession of the game, following a number of bruising runs by Tuttle that appeared to wear their opponents down. On defense, Tuttle snuffed a drive into Central territory with an interception to end the first half, while Rice had a standout game. "They literally could not block Tom Rice," said Saccoccia, who believed Rice had at least four sacks in the game. After the game, fans were asking, "Who is this Hawk Rice?" Central would claim its third shutout victim, 20-0.

After three games, people were starting to take notice of the Crusaders. They were ranked number one in the United Press International (UPI) AA poll. The defensive statistics at this point were incredible: a total of 157 yards rushing, another 98 through the air, and no points surrendered. Alessi, in looking back on this point of the season, said, "Everyone knew that Brooke, Wintersville and Central had the best teams in the valley. When we got through those two teams and we were rated number one, we knew it was our state championship to lose."

Central would venture into hostile territory the following week to face East Liverpool. First half touchdown runs by Mehalik of 25 yards and by Tuttle of 75 yards were enough to hold off the Potters. The hosts were more successful at moving the ball than previous opponents, as they rolled up 161 yards on the ground to eclipse the total from the previous three games. Comments from Moitis bear this out: "I made around 20 tackles, but I was making them five yards down field." A few players felt that East Liverpool was the beneficiary of a bit of creative officiating on their scoring drive late in the third quarter, when a penalty was marked off to the Crusader two yard line, rather than half the distance. The Potters would score only once though, and the final was 14-6.

This game was just as memorable for events that occurred on the field afterwards. In the waning seconds, a fight broke out between the teams. Mehalik describes the scene. "It was the biggest brawl I’ve ever seen. The stands emptied. I got my helmet torn off. I remember (Father) Vince Huber was on the field, and he was protecting me because my helmet was pulled off." Saccoccia explained the effect the fight had on the team. "It put us on a mission. It brought a close team even closer."

Week five brought Pittsburgh Central Catholic to town. This was Central’s fifth consecutive opponent to be undefeated at the time they played the Crusaders, and it was the most highly regarded, as they were ranked number one among Pennsylvania AAA teams and listed among the top teams on the East Coast. With rain pouring down throughout the contest, Mehalik put on a show, rushing 29 times for 226 yards and two touchdowns. He remembers that performance. "It was a muddy game. (Running in those conditions) was one of my strengths. I was sore the next day."

A critical defensive play swung momentum right before halftime. Star halfback "Rip" Warren of the visitors caught a pass and was headed for a 68 yard touchdown when Moitis, initially at the other side of the field, took an angle and ran him down at the six yard line. Korab recalls Moitis saying to the press following the game, "Rip Warren was running for a touchdown. I was running for my life. Coach Korab would have killed me if I didn’t catch him." That preserved a 6-6 tie at the intermission. Central’s defense stiffened in the second half, allowing only one first down, and the Crusaders won 19-6 against a team that was generally regarded as the best they would face all season.

Central, now atop the Associated Press (AP) AA rankings, traveled to Weirton to take on the once-beaten Madonna Blue Dons next. Central built up a 21-0 lead early and played their second string for most of the game. Mehalik and Tuttle scored two touchdowns each and Carapellotti picked off two passes. Central remained undefeated with a 28-6 decision in this penalty-filled contest marred by 22 flags and over 230 yards marked off.

Cross town rivals Steubenville Big Red were the opponent for week seven. Moitis admitted, "We were always intimidated by them. They had better athletes." Big Red had a 18-9-1 record in the series at the time, so nothing could be taken for granted. Korab tells of how he psyched the team up for the game. "We got ahold of a recording of their horse. I locked them in the equipment shed and we played that horse going ‘ne-e-eigh’ for an hour and a half."

Early in the game, Big Red capitalized on a Crusader fumble to quickly march down the field. Mehalik noted, "We were all shocked that they moved the ball on us." A sequence of rushes by Mike Mavromatis and Herman Davis placed the ball on the four yard line, first and goal. Moitis, after making the tackle on Davis, knew something was wrong. "I tackled him and my face felt warm. I felt blood." He was cut on the eyelid and blood was dripping, but he stayed on the field for the next two plays, in which the defense thwarted a pair of rushing attempts. The officials at this point called time, and Moitis left the field. On third down, Rankin stopped the ball-carrier on the one foot line. In the meantime on the sidelines, as Moitis recalls, "I wiped blood from my face with a towel and ran back on the field with blood still dripping," while noting that no bandage was applied as had been commonly believed. On fourth down, Moitis and Colaiacovo teamed to stop Mavromatis on the one inch line.

Central proceeded to drove 99 yards down the field, culminating in a two yard run by Colaiacovo, to grab the early lead.

Central was normally the model of precision in this epic season, but even in the few times that they were not, they often would come out ahead. Mehalik describes one notable play. "I forgot the snap count. I asked Collie and he told me the wrong count, which was an earlier count. The center Mike Homol overheard him, so he snapped on the wrong count. The three of us were the only ones who moved." It didn't matter. Mehalik ran for a touchdown on the play.

Central wound up with another win, 23-8. Moitis, thanks to Leo Lanaghan, got a police escort to the hospital where he received 12 stitches.

The following game was a bit of a breather as Central defeated winless Louisville Aquinas, 40-0, in front of a small homecoming crowd. The Crusaders had two more games to go, but neither appeared to be easy.

Youngstown North came to Harding Stadium on a snowy evening in early November in what Carapellotti described as "an electric atmosphere." They were only the second Class AA foe on Central's schedule but were undefeated and ranked number four in the state. Given that there were no playoffs, this match-up between the first and fourth ranked teams would be as close to a final "playoff" game as there would be this season. North had several players that would later play in the National Football League: quarterback Sherman Smith (who also had a 33-1-1 mark at Miami of Ohio) and tackle Mike Cobb. The visitors entered the field in a manner that upset a number of Central players. As one relates, "We were out on the field warming up. They came off the bus and they circled us single file. They tried to intimidate us."

Central dominated the game, winning 31-0. Korab told of a player from North he ran into years later who stated, "After the first quarter, we knew we were in trouble." The ultimate prize was very close now. One more win and the team would achieve something no other Central team had - an undefeated and untied season and a likely state championship.

Austintown Fitch, with an enrollment of 2700, well over three times that of Central, would be their final opponent. In part because of the wide discrepancy in student population, and also due to their 6-3 record in which losses came to powerhouse teams such as Warren Western Reserve and Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, Korab, who was also the athletic director, remembers asking assistant coach Bob McClosky "How dumb could I be for scheduling this team?"

The Crusaders were confident and determined going into the game. Moitis said, "There is no one that would have beaten us at that point." Alessi added, "We weren’t going to let this thing get away." Central built a 21-0 lead at the half, on two scores by Tuttle and another by Colaiacovo. Carpellotti had another two interceptions. The Crusaders closed the season just as they began it, with three shutouts. The final score was 28-0. Korab noted, "We played a perfect game."

When the final ranking came out a few days later, it was official. Central was rated the number one AA team in Ohio in the AP and UPI polls.

The New State Champions

Not surprisingly, several individuals logged impressive statistics. Mehalik finished with 1204 yards rushing, while Tuttle had 1066. Moitis and Tuttle had 100 and 79 tackles, respectively. These players and others were selected to the various post-season all-star teams. UPI named Mehalik and Tuttle co-backs of the year and Moitis lineman of the year for Class AA, and picked Korab as coach of the year. The AP placed Mehalik on its AA first team offensive team and Moitis on the first team defense, with Rice on third team offense, Tuttle on third team defense and Thorn honorable mention. Eleven Crusaders appeared on the all-OVAC team. Finally, Scholastic Magazine named Moitis as an All-American honorable mention.

Tuttle, Moitis and Perko were selected to play in the All-Ohio game in Canton, and Moitis also participated in the Big 33 game that pitted Ohio vs. Pennsylvania players.

Despite these many great individual performances, a "team first" attitude was foremost in everyone’s mind. Tuttle said, "There was no star. We played as one." Moitis echoed this sentiment. "We played as a team. We thought we were just role players. We never thought we were as good as Kenny Mannie or Joe Caranfa," a reference to Central stars from a few years earlier.

Team members were also quick to emphasize that this was a well-coached, disciplined team. Korab was and still is respected by his players from this team, both for his decision making and coaching philosophy. Moitis said of his coach, "He put players in the right positions," and added, "He substituted a lot. He never ran the score up."

Korab himself praised his assistants: "I acquired a great coaching staff." Moitis paid tribute to one of them, Chuck McMasters. "He was a very inventive defensive coach. Sunday through Friday, we would go over the team we were playing that week, and talk defense. We would adjust our defense at halftime."

So strong was Central that many people wondered how they would fare against the Ohio AAA champion Warren Harding. Korab knew Warren’s coach Tom Batta from college and the two speculated on who might win the game. Said the Central coach, "That’s the only (post-season) game we were interested in playing. We agreed we were better off not knowing the outcome."

The team itself received tributes from coaches of top college programs. Two assistants at Ohio State called the team "as polished as most teams in the Big Ten." A Notre Dame coach, while recruiting Mike Mehalik, said Central was the best high school team he saw on film that season.

Mehalik ended up at the University of Pittsburgh along with Perko, Tuttle attended the University of Kentucky, Ros went to West Virginia University, Moitis to Memphis State, Carapellotti to Furman, to name a few. Perko played in the Canadian Football League and the National Football League.

Forty years later, the 1971 team remains the only undefeated and untied squad in school history.

Unfortunately, five players from the 1971 team have passed away - Augie Carinci, John Harper, Tom Perko, Bill Rankin and Dave Smith – as have several members of the coaching staff – assistants Don DiMarzio, Chuck McMasters and Rich Santilli, and equipment manager Jim McCormack.

Korab coached from 1963 to 1989 at a number of schools but still vividly recalls the 1971 season and has fond memories of his five years as head coach at Central. He acknowledged the many groups that contributed to the team’s success. "The booster club and the community were really great. The parents of the players would come to practice. They watched the practices and supported the team. The doctors gave the best treatment and therapy. They were always at the games. Dr. Tegano made John Colaiacovo a mouthpiece that he could speak through."

Of course, the players also speak glowingly of their brilliant season. As Alessi said, "It was something really special. It was a privilege to be part of a special group of players. We had a special group of coaches and fans also."

Saccoccia summarized the football aspect of the season perfectly. "That season was a season of big plays, and we made them on both sides of the ball." We couldn’t agree more.

[Thank you to Tom Korab, Rick Alessi, Paul Carapellotti, Mike Mehalik, Dave Moitis, Ray Saccoccia and Dave Tuttle for their valuable input for this article.]