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Written by: Hal Wilson on Tuesday, January 12th, 2021
The Lansford Panthers fielded one of the most powerful teams ever in the Coal Regions in 1943. The squad from the anthracite-rich Panther Valley ran roughshod over all twelve rivals, including lop-sided routs of two Big Fifteen schools, Lebanon and Pottsville. In fact, the Panthers hammered these two again in 1944. The two-year combined scores were 130-0. Lansford climaxed the 1943 season with a 19-0 thumping of Dunmore in the Eastern Conference championship game.
Lansford had scored 392 points to just 18 for their opponents. In every game, the margin of victory was at least three touchdowns. The Panthers were so dominant that the second stringers played in each contest, sometimes entering in the first half.
When 1943 championship game day dawned in Lansford, the Panthers were ready. 6000 spectators packed the local stadium. Although Dunmore had played a war-shortened schedule of six games, the Bucks were large and they were unbeaten. Guard Joe Sarabok marveled at the size of the Dunmore team – “Those guys were big “ he said.
The Panthers scored on their first possession, junior fullback Andy Lukac going in from the one after a six-play 46 yard drive. A pass from Johnny Chuckran to fellow halfback Bernie Sniscak had gained 19. Lansford scored suddenly in the second quarter when Chuckran hit Sniscak on a 47 yard pass-run TD play and the Panthers led 12-0 at the half. The icing on the title cake was applied in the final quarter when Chuckran scored from the six, ending a short 24 yard push after Dunmore punted from its end zone.
Before the season began, the Lansford faithful had questions about new coach Tony Denby and his Y formation. These were quickly dispelled when the Panthers romped over Frackville in the opener and then destroyed a good Pottsville team 32-0. Lansford won in the Schuylkill County seat for the fourth straight season.
In the Lebanon game, Sniscak scored four times on runs of 51, 50, 19 and 45 yards. Tamaqua was touted as a roadblock for the Panthers. Lansford demolished the Blue Raiders 38-0 as a record 6800 watched in Tamaqua. At Nesquehoning, the largest home crowd ever, 4200, saw the Panthers win 39-0.
Nemesis Kulpmont was repulsed 25-6 after a 6-0 first half. Neighboring rival Coaldale was beaten 28-6 before 6400 Thanksgiving fans in a hard-fought prelude to the Dunmore game.
The Lansford defense, particularly the line, was overpowering. Two up-front Panthers were named to the All-State first team – stellar end Paul Kucan and outstanding guard Joe Sarabok. From the high-scoring offense, Sniscak, with his speed and strength, scored 23 touchdowns, many on reverses and passes from Chuckran, who was considered by many the best all-around halfback in the state. Junior fullback Lukac’s offense and defense were vital.
Perfect in 1943, rebuilt Lansford won ten straight in 1944, finally falling to Hanover Township, 7-0 on a disputed touchdown in the Eastern title game. The Panthers had won 23 consecutive games.
Hanover star Sherman ran 64 yards in the third quarter – the Panther players thought they heard the referee’s whistle and hesitated. Lansford reached the Hanover Township five early in the second half and the enemy 27 after Sherman’s run.
The game at Hanover’s field outside Wilkes-Barre was played in frigid conditions. The snow-covered gridiron was marked with coal dust.
The Panthers had worked through the toughest part of their 1944 schedule in the final weeks, getting by neighborhood rivals Nesquehoning 13-6 and Coaldale 13-0.
Fullback Lukac was selected for the All-State second team. He went on to play extraordinary defense at Fordham and, after Army service, captained the Rams in 1950.
Johnny Chuckran came to Penn State in 1944 and captained the wartime Nittany Lions as a freshman. After duty in the armed forces, he returned to letter in 1948 and 1949. He coached at Allegheny College then returned to Penn State where he was part of the football staff at Penn State for a number of years. He completed his career as Athletic Director at Rhode Island.
Joe Sarabok played at Penn State as well, after two years in the Navy. Both he and Chuckran were members of the Lions’ unbeaten and untied 1947 Cotton Bowl team.
Paul Kucan joined the Marines and then starred for the Pottsville Maroons and other semi-pro teams in the anthracite country.
Bernie Sniscak ran a punt back for Pitt in 1944 to beat Penn State and played at Maryland after serving in the Navy.
The starting tackles were both juniors – big Joe Sabol went on to Tennessee, while Steve Orachko lettered as a 1945 freshman at Notre Dame. Then, after Army service, he lettered three more times and tallied 73 points as Notre Dame’s place kicker in 1948 and 1949. The Fighting Irish won national championships in both 1947 and 1949..
Great PA Teams – Lansford 1943 3
Bernie’s cousin George Sniscak, a Panther sophomore tackle in 1943, was a 200 pound plus starter in 1944 and 1945 and went on to star at Wake Forest. Arnold Palmer was a friend and fellow student and Ray George of Chicago Bears fame was a teammate. Sniscak was also a shot put star at Lansford, setting a District 11 record in the spring of 1946
In 1943, Tony Denby, a native of Nanticoke, was in the first of his two years as the Panther coaching mastermind. He had been hired from Luzerne in the Wilkes-Barre area after Ken Millen, coach at Lansford since 1930, suddenly left for nearby Tamaqua. According to guard Sarabok, Denby was smart and strict, a football innovator, and respected by his players. He employed a variety of offensive formations, principally the Y with the fullback set right behind the quarterback. An occasional man-in-motion startled opponents.
From Lansford, Denby moved to New Jersey. He was succeeded by Tex Hinte in 1945. Denby’s record at Lansford was 22 wins and the lone 1944 title game defeat.
Denby returned to Pennsylvania for five successful years at Berwick, beginning in 1947. He coached again at Luzerne and set up a club football program at King’s College.
Berwick’s George Curry said that, “ Tony Denby was a great coach – ahead of his time.”
In those days of scholastic football, one assistant was the norm. At Lansford in 1943, Denby’s assistant was Ernest Spence who was lost in a submarine in Tokyo Bay in the late stages of the war with Japan.
The starters for the 1943 Lansford powerhouse were:
E 88 Joe DEMARCO 5-8 171
T 91 Joe SABOL 6-2 215
G 75 John KRAUCHICK 5-11 170
C 74 Dan KUDELLA 5-11 170
G 82 Joe SARABOK 5-10 175
T 89 Steve ORACHKO 5-11 184
E 87 Paul KUCAN 6-0 175
Q 81 Jim SHOBER 5-11 170
H 85 Johnny CHUCKRAN 5-10 170
H 77 Bernie SNISCAK 5-11 170
F 72 Andy LUKAC 5-7 172
Other key players included tiny but tough blocking back 71 Paul ONDARCO, swift running back 79 Joe DZURENKO, and sturdy lineman 86 Joe SMYRL.
Shober had started the season at center and alternated with Kudella as play messenger. Midway through the campaign, Shober was moved to blocking back and Kudella became the full-time first stringer.
The Panther’s great 1943 season record:
47 FRACKVILLE 0
32 POTTSVILLE 0
27 MINERSVILLE 6
33 HAZLE TOWNSHIP 0
32 WEST HAZLETON 0
45 LEBANON 0
38 TAMAQUA 0
39 NESQUEHONING 0
27 MCADOO 0
25 KULPMONT 6
28 COALDALE 6
EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
19 DUNMORE 0
A 1943 state title game between Brownsville and Lansford would have been special. Six starters on these two teams later lettered at Penn State.
Lansford had a plethora of first-team All-Staters in these years. In 1941, the Panthers placed tackle Jim Vugrin on the elite squad, while in 1942, guard Eddie Klementovich and fullback Alex Ferretti were honored. The 1940, 1941 and 1942 Lansford teams each lost only once – 1943 was the year of fulfillment.
An earlier Panther product who gained gridiron fame was Mike Holovak. After starring at
Lansford, big Mike became the battering ram fullback for Boston College, starting for three years on great Eagle teams. At 6-2 214, he was the consensus All-America fullback in 1942. Later, he had a long successful career as a pro player, coach and executive.
Holovak’s Lansford and BC teammate, Joe Repko, also found success in the NFL
Lansford was the corporate headquarters of one of the giants of the anthracite coal industry – the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, producers of “Old Company’s Lehigh” coal. Wartime work in the collieries in the area sometimes held the home crowds down but record numbers found their way to the “big” games.
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