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Work ethic made Harmarville toast of U.S. soccer in 1950s

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

George Resavage remembers his well-timed and well-placed boot that won the 1956 U.S. Open Cup like it was yesterday.

Four members of the Harmarville Hurricanes. From left: Augie Celo, Joe Halasowski, George Resavage and John "Lav" Prucnal. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Click photo for larger version.

"Buddy Utchel was playing outside right," Resavage recalled. "He retrieved the ball and crossed it over. I'm over on the outside lip and hit it without stopping it. I put it in the right-hand corner. You don't forget moments like that."

Resavage and other members of the Harmarville Hurricanes remember the come-from-behind, double-overtime victory with stunning detail, despite the passing of decades. But how many sports fans in the city can say the same? How many even knew a championship soccer team existed?

It might be a piece of forgotten history for most, but Harmarville's victory against the Chicago Schwaben marked the last time a team from Western Pennsylvania took home soccer's national trophy, and it stands as a landmark achievement for soccer in this area, once a hotbed for the sport.

In a decade in which the Pirates and Steelers were chronically bad, the Hurricanes brought championships and soccer prominence to the city. They did not receive much publicity, and there isn't much civic recollection of their accomplishments. But for a while, the Harmarville Hurricanes Soccer Club was one of the best-known and most successful in the country.

Harmarville won Open Cup championships in '52 and '56. The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as it was renamed in '99, is the oldest cup and annual team competition for soccer in this country, with the first champion crowned in 1914.

Amateur teams competed for the cup until a few years ago. And for almost two decades, Pittsburgh teams dominated the Open Cup landscape.

From 1942-56, eight teams from Western Pennsylvania played for the championship. The Gallatin Soccer Club in '42 and the Morgan Soccer Club in '49 are the other teams from the area to have won the cup. Pittsburgh Morgan-Strasser ('43 and '44), Pittsburgh Heidelberg ('51) and Harmarville ('53) lost in the final.

Pros vs. amateurs

Most of the area's mining towns fielded soccer clubs back then. Top athletes were recruited with well-paying jobs in the mines or with the mining companies.

Harmarville was consistently the best club. From 1947-63, the Hurricanes compiled a 340-60-46 record. And they did it with a style and tenacity befitting their blue-collar roots.

Harmarville picked up its players from the area's top teams. The amateur athletes who were grizzled veterans of wars and, for the most part, worked in coal mines, mills and factories.

Opponents in the Open Cup tournament often brought in "ringers," professional players from teams in the American Soccer League or players from other countries' national teams. Harmarville's roster was strictly Western Pennsylvania residents, who often played games after long work weeks.

"We were always the underdogs," said team captain Ray Bernabei.

The 1952 team beat the Philadelphia Nationals of the American Soccer League, 7-5, on aggregate goals in a home-and-home series. Sonny Yakopec scored the winning goal. His name appears on the 1952 Open Cup trophy displayed with other memorabilia in a showcase on the second floor of the Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena in Harmarville. Much of the memorabilia there was part of display that stood until 1999 at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneata, N.Y.

The Harmarville Hurricanes in the early 1950s. (Photo courtesy of John Prucnal)

"Other teams had professional players who played in the European Cups and World Cups," said Bernabei, who is a retired school administrator living in Florida. "We competed with grit and guts. Our opponents always out-finessed us. I would always tell the guys one thing: They'll be much better skilled than us, but we'll have much better stamina and we'll shoot better. We would shoot it from 25, 30 yards out. I told our guys, let them show off and get the applause. They could do whatever they wanted as long as they didn't score."

After losing to the Chicago Falcons in the '53 Open Cup final, Harmarville beat the Chicago Schwaben, 3-2, for the '56 title. It also was a home-and-home, total-goals series. Harmarville trailed, 1-0, heading into the second game at Harmarville's Consumer Field and fell behind, 2-0 in aggregate goals, early in the second game. But the Hurricanes tied the final with goals by 38-year old reserve Harry Pitchok and Tom Craddock to force overtime. The two clubs played 52 minutes of overtime before Resavage one-timed a 20-yard kick past the Chicago goalkeeper for the Cup-clinching tally with eight minutes remaining in the second overtime.

"It froze the goalie," said Resavage, who is retired and living in Castle Shannon. "He never expected me to hit it without stopping it. Sometimes you get lucky."

The goal was especially satisfying for Resavage because he had been listening to the Chicago players put down his teammates throughout the series. "Chicago called us a bunch of coal miners and amateurs. Those guys couldn't believe it when we beat them. They were pros."

Their own style

So how did a team that practiced once or twice a week enjoy so much success? Players credit superior conditioning, dedication and an unorthodox playing style.

"I just think we had more desire," said John "Lav" Prucnal, a longtime member of those Harmarville teams. "And I think we were in better shape than most of the teams we played against, even though they were supposedly professionals. Most of our guys worked in coal mines or factories. When you worked in a mine or factory, you didn't sit around getting fat. We were all in good shape. People talk about the guys who have abs now. Well, we had the abs back then. We could run for miles and miles. We were tough. We had the stamina."

Harmarville used two center forwards, one fullback and what Bernabei called a rover, his position. The aggressive offensive style would be almost unrecognizable in American soccer today, and back then it often befuddled ill-prepared opponents.

"We decided to do it our own way," Bernabei said.

Even though the players relished the underdog role, the Hurricanes were not bereft of talent. This area churned out talented athletes, and players such as Bernabei, Yakopec, Nick Diorio and Steve Grivinow were among the best players in the country. Grivnow played for the 1948 U.S. Olympic team. Bernabei and Bobby Craddock are in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Goalkeeper Don Malinowski and Yakopec, a defender, are eligible for induction on the veterans' ballot.

"Our guys knew how to play," Bernabei said. "We all grew up playing soccer."

Team sponsor John Mojack was responsible for putting the Harmarville team together. He combined the two teams from Harmar and Indianola and then lured the best players from Heidelberg, Castle Shannon and the other mining teams. The players received a stipend for playing but were considered amateurs.

Hurt by the other football

Newspaper reports from the day estimated 5,000 fans attended the Sunday afternoon contest that decided the '56 Open Cup, lining up four-deep around Consumer Field. The Sun-Telegraph, Pittsburgh Press and Post-Gazette reported on the game. The Hurricanes received national attention in February 1956, a few months before winning the cup, when Myron Cope penned a two-page feature story for Sports Illustrated.

Soccer usually was relegated to the back pages of the sports section. The day after the Hurricanes won the cup, The Pittsburgh Press ran six paragraphs on an inside page of the sports section.

What small following the club had in the 1950s shriveled up after the '56 Open Cup championship, and the club ceased to exist after 1967. Joe Halasowski, who played on both cup-winning teams, said the main reason was the increasing popularity of professional football. The Hurricanes played on Sunday afternoons, but fans soon found watching the NFL on television more compelling than braving the elements and watching soccer.

"The onset of television knocked the heck out of the clubs," Halasowski said. "That negated a lot of the fans we had. We used to have 3,000-4,000 fans come out and watch us play."

Resavage said the death of the local coal industry and soccer are interrelated.

"When the mines shut down it just dwindled away," Resavage said. "Soccer sort of died. It really died."

It's been 47 years since Harmarville reigned supreme as America's national soccer champion. On Wednesday, the Riverhounds play D.C. United of Major League Soccer in a third-round Open Cup game.

The Riverhounds were one of eight teams to reach the quarterfinal round of the Open Cup tournament in 2001, their deepest foray into the tournament since being formed in 1999 and the closest any local team has come to winning the cup since the Hurricanes.

The John Heinz Regional History Center is looking for uniforms, spikes and other Harmarville Hurricanes memorabilia for a display it is preparing on local sports history. Persons with memorabilia can call the center at 412-454-6433.

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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