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Written by: Billy Splain on Thursday, April 23rd, 2020
ELLWOOD CITY 1925
In 1925, Ellwood City, a steel center in southern Lawrence County, produced a football team for the ages. Giant county rival New Castle dominated the scholastic game for most of the 20th century in that neighborhood of the WPIAL – but 1925 belonged to the Blue and White of Ellwood.
The defining game of this extraordinary season came in a huge showdown between New Castle and Ellwood City at the old Ellwood field where the current high school stands. New Castle had not lost since the legendary Phil Bridenbaugh became coach in 1922 – the total undefeated string had reached 43 games. New Castle was the defending WPIAL champion and the immortal Ralph “Scooter” Day was back for his final season.
Both teams were unscored upon. However, Ellwood was actually favored going into the contest. The local team was heavier, and had won six straight. A tough test had come against Monaca with its star Karcis, but Ellwood prevailed 12-0. New Castle had won eight in a row, including a 13-0 victory over still strong Harrisburg Tech, then in its final season. Ellwood City returned 18 lettermen from a 1924 7-4 squad that had lost at New Castle 26-7.
On the day of the game, 10,000 packed the grounds. People living near the old field stood on their house roofs to watch. The gridiron was wet and muddy. New Castle claimed for years later that Ellwood had “watered” the field to slow down the faster New Castle backs.
New Castle started the game like a house on fire. New Castle kicked off and Ellwood punted the ball back on first down. Three first downs brought the ball inside the five yard line. The Red and Black were stopped on the one-foot line on fourth down.
This stand seemed to ignite Ellwood and an interception placed the ball in New Castle territory. Then Ellwood’s big gun, 6-1, 228 pound Tom MacMurdo and teammate Harold Johnston carried to a first down on the one. MacMurdo scored on the second play. End Jim Fitzgerald kicked the conversion and Ellwood led 7-0.
In the second half, New Castle fought desperately. The climax came when MacMurdo broke through center and ran 26 yards for the clinching score. An Ellwood aerial attack threatened to widen the margin late in the fourth quarter but Day intercepted a pass on his own goal line on the last play of the game.
Ellwood City was acclaimed the best team in the state after this mighty triumph. Ellwood then went on to romp over Homestead and East Palestine, Ohio, by a combined score of 103-0 and finished the season with a spotless record..
Two undefeated, untied teams remained in the WPIAL. Jeannette was the other. Ellwood City and Jeannette were finally scheduled to play for the championship on December 5, after all regular season games had been completed. Surprisingly, Jeannette scheduled a game with Latrobe for Thanksgiving Day. Latrobe tied Jeannette 6-6 and the emblematic Syracuse Cup and the WPIAL championship were awarded to Ellwood.
These events did not end the season for Ellwood City, however. Out in Illinois, Freeport had not been beaten for five years and was two-time Illinois champion. The Midwesterners agreed to a post-season game in Pennsylvania in a contest billed as a national championship. Known as the Pretzels, Freeport brought a special trainload of fans, including a fifty piece marching band, to the game played in brand new Pitt Stadium.
Freeport showed great open field running and sharp passing and defeated Ellwood, 13-7, with Tom MacMurdo scoring late to avert a shutout. Two MacMurdo fumbles hurt earlier Ellwood City scoring chances. Only 2454 witnessed the game in the huge arena.
End Fitzgerald, guard Art Applebaum, and backs MacMurdo and Johnston were named to the All-WPIAL first team.
Two other MacMurdos started for Ellwood. Sophomore brother Jim was the center. He went on to star at Pitt and then played three years with the Philadelphia Eagles in the 1930’s NFL. Bob MacMurdo was the right tackle.
23 Tom MacMurdo, the “Big Train”, scored 120 points that season, still the Ellwood City single season record. He reportedly received a severe head injury in the New Castle game and was never the same player. His college offers included Minnesota, Nebraska and Pitt.
A sub on this team was the later famed basketball coach at tiny nearby Wampum, L. Butler Hennon. Hennon coached the Allen brothers, including Phillies great Dick Allen, and led the Indians to three state B championships.
H. Martin “Peck” Lee was the veteran Ellwood City coach. After years of patient effort, his 1925 squad marked his greatest season. He had instilled a fighting spirit in a veteran team.
The powerful 1925 Ellwood City staring lineup:
E Bill MARSH 195
T Curt NEFF 190
G Art APPLEBAUM 180
C Jim MACMURDO 180
G Bill HERGE 165
T Bob MACMURDO 175
E Jim FITZGERALD 175
Q Ross PARKER 165
H Johnny SANDERS 170
H Harold JOHNSTON 170
F Tom MACMURDO 228
The championship season record:
60 EVANS CITY 0
12 MONACA 0
20 BEAVER 0
20 BEAVER FALLS 0
20 WOODLAWN 0
64 NEW WILMINGTON 0
14 NEW CASTLE 0
31 HOMESTEAD 0
72 EAST PALESTINE Ohio 0
7 FREEPORT Illinois 13
In 1944, another Ellwood City team finished a perfect season and reached the WPIAL AA championship game at Pitt Stadium. Now called the Wolverines, Ellwood, led by All-State end Leon Presto battled the great Donora team, losing a hard fought game to Arnold Galiffa, Roscoe Ross and company, 13-0.
The contribution of Bob Vosburg, retired Sports and Managing Editor of the New Castle News, to this article is acknowledged and appreciated.
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