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Written by: Hal Wilson on Monday, January 6th, 2020
Many outstanding teams have been produced over the years in the vast WPIAL. The very best of all may have been the 1945 Donora Dragons from the rugged steel town in the Monongahela River Valley. After sweeping through unbeaten and winning the AA playoff in 1944, Coach Jimmy Russell’s 1945 squad was even better, awesome offensively, and with a starting defense that did not give up a point.
Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi
Lou “Bimbo” Cecconi, the 1945 quarterback, summed it up with the comment, “we had a great group of athletes in those years – we excelled at everything we did”. 1945 end Andy Lelik cited character as a major strength of these Donora teams.
Possibly the best athlete of all was the mighty “Deacon” Dan Towler, a 6-1, 215 pound, sprinting fullback. With 10 second speed, Towler was unstoppable, scoring 152 points for Donora in 1945 and repeatedly breaking away for long touchdown runs. He was named first team All-State fullback.
Roscoe Ross was another marvelous Dragon back. A three-year starter, Ross was as fast as Towler and scored 28 touchdowns in his Donora career. He was a second team All- Stater in 1944. Some observers consider Ross to have been the finest running back in Western Pennsylvania history. He too recorded touchdowns after long sprints to the end zone.
Sturdy forward walls were a hallmark in both 1944 and 1945. The 1944 line, all seniors, was led by Tom Ballaban, second team All-State guard, and center Jack Jaso. In 1945, the entirely new line, with brother Ernie Ross at center and Bill Samer at end, had the reputation of being the “toughest line in the WPIAL”.
Coach Jimmy Russell had come directly to Donora from Notre Dame where he had been a team manager for Knute Rockne. He was a keen observer and brought with him Rockne’s talent for surprise and innovation. Russell was an early proponent of the T formation. He used the short punt formation often, and still more formations on occasion.
Against Altoona at Mansion Park in 1945, Donora scored on the first play with its entire line and backfield lined up to the right of center Ernie Ross. Altoona’s Aaron then stole the ball from Towler at the Dragon one and ran in to score. The Mountain Lions actually led 7-6 at the half, but the second half was all Donora as Towler more than made up for his miscue and the Dragons won going away, 34-7
The only tight game in 1945 was a 7-0 win at previously unbeaten Clairton. Towler dove late for the winning TD after the Dragons repeatedly held off an ambitious Clairton eleven. Back to punt in the final quarter, Cecconi received a bad pass from center, took off running and 24 yards later reached the Donora 48. Towler, Ross and Cecconi then pounded away at the Bear defense. Towler finally scored and Donora won the clash of unbeatens 7-0.
The climax to this marvelous season came in the WPIAL AA title game at St. Vincent College outside Latrobe where 10,000 rain-soaked fans saw Donora romp over New Kensington, 38-6, in a sea of mud.
The game started well for the Dragons as Ken Hi fumbled on their initial scrimmage play and Lelik recovered on the losers’ 24. Towler plowed eight yards for the first score. Then Roscoe Ross raced 72 yards around end and the rout was on. A Lelik interception at the 44 led to another Towler TD, this one from the six-inch line.
Early in the second half, the Dragon fullback thundered 45 yards for the fourth Donora TD and his third of the game. Lelik, a defensive demon all afternoon, blocked a Ken Hi punt. Sophomore guard Rudy Andabaker picked up the ball and carried it 30 yards for another score.
Cecconi made major gains throughout the game from his quarterback post. He scored the final Dragon six on a “sneak” from the 13.
The 1944 team was led at quarterback by the legendary Arnold Galiffa, the 1949 All-America QB at West Point. Against rival Monessen early in the season, Ross scored on touchdown runs of 65, 44, 65 and 70 yards, and sprinted 80 yards for a TD with an interception. In the AA title playoff against Ellwood City at Pitt Stadium, a 13-0 Dragon victory, Ross suffered an injury early in the game. Cecconi replaced him and Donora went on to win anyway.
After the 1944 season, Galiffa, Cecconi, Roscoe Ross, and end Stan Bolek led Donora to the 1945 WPIAL A basketball crown and PIAA State Final. The Dragons lost a two-point game to Allentown at Convention Hall in Philadelphia. Towler was a key reserve.
In addition to Galiffa, many of the Donora stars of this era went on college and some to the pros. Towler starred for the LA Rams after a career at W&J. Guard Rudy Andabaker, later played for Pitt and the Steelers. Cecconi starred in both basketball and football at Pitt, despite his 5-8 stature..
1944 center and captain Jack Jaso was a standout at Cornell, while 1945 end Bill Samer lettered at Pitt. Many players became coaches and school administrators.
One 1945 ranking had Donora at No. 3 in the USA. In 1984, the Pittsburgh Press polled the fans, coaches and writers in the area – to name the best scholastic teams in the previous 50 years. 1945 Donora was voted No. 1 by each group. The fans selected the 1944 team No. 3.
In 1944, Donora fielded these usual starters:
E 61 Stan BOLEK 5-11 175
T 88 Ferd WIECLAW 6-1 200
G 73 George BUCHAK 5-11 165
C 70 Jack JASO 5-10 185
G 68 Tom BALLABAN 5-11 165
T 92 Harry OSTAPOWICZ 6-5 220
E 76 Ralph GIMERA 5-9 165
Q 65 Arnold GALIFFA 6-2 175
H 62 John FOLEY 5-8 150
H 79 Roscoe ROSS 5-10 175
F 93 Dan TOWLER 6-0 200
66 Pete CICCONI and 61 Ernie DENNIS were able ball carriers as well.
The regular 1945 Dragon lineup included:
E 75 Andy LELIK 6-2 173
T 81 Carl PELL 6-0 185
G 65 Tom BUCHAK 5-11 165
C 74 Ernie ROSS 5-9 185
G 64 Rudy ANDABAKER 5-11 170
T 78 Ed DUDA 5-11 175
83 John KOTLENSKY 6-0 175
E 85 Bill SAMER 6-2 185
Q 72 Lou CECCONI 5-8 155
H 69 Frank BOLEK 5-10 160
77 Frank DEFELICIS 5-8 160
H 79 Roscoe ROSS 5-10 180
F 90 Dan TOWLER 6-1 215
92 John NEHREBECKI, 6-1, 200, started at tackle in the opener with Monessen. He was injured during the game and missed the rest of the 1945 season.
Towler remembered that the Dragons were so good and so far ahead early in most games that Coach Russell substituted freely. “I wonder what would have happened if we played the whole game” he mused.
Donora”s 1944 undefeated untied record:
47 PITTSBURGH PERRY 0
31 MONESSEN 12
45 LATROBE 6
50 CHARLEROI 7
37 BROWNSVILLE 13
47 MONONGAHELA 0
20 ALTOONA 0
34 WASHINGTON 6
WPIAL AA CHAMPIONSHIP
13 ELLWOOD CITY 0
The spectacular 1945 Dragon season:
18 MONESSEN 0
27 PITTSBURGH WESTINGHOUSE 0
33 LATROBE 0
7 CLAIRTON 0
45 CHARLEROI 0
26 BROWNSVILLE 0
28 MONONGAHELA 0
34 ALTOONA 7
41 WASHINGTON 0
38 NEW KENSINGTON 6
In the East, Allentown in 1944 and Williamsport in 1945 were unbeaten and untied, although Harris won the 1944 Big Fifteen title. Each would have been a worthy opponent for the great Dragons in state championship games.
Donora reached the WPIAL AA championship game again in 1953 with a strong perfect record team. Facing unbeaten, untied and favored Har-Brack with its “Triple Terrors”, led by later pro star Cookie Gilchrist, the Dragons held the Tigers to a scoreless tie and shared the AA crown.
In 1969, the Donora School District was joined with that of Monongahela to form the Ringgold District and High School.
Donora is also noted as the home of baseball great Stan Musial. Musial did not play football and was a basketball star for the Dragons. Donora had no high school baseball team. He was a sandlot baseball star in the Valley before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bud Griffey, father of baseball’s Ken Griffey, was a grid star for Donora in 1938. Ken was a mainstay of fine Dragon teams in the late 60’s. His son Ken Griffey, Jr. was born in Donora.
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