Forty years ago, Hempfield shocked football fans nationwide, upset No. 1 Penn Hills
The Hempfield football program has seen better days since its merger in 1961.
There was the 1966 team that lost to Mt. Lebanon, 18-14, in the WPIAL Class AA title game and the 12 other teams WPIAL playoff qualifiers, including the 1997 team, which was the only one to win a playoff game.
But the best team that didn’t make the playoffs probably had the most memorable victory in school history.
Forty years ago, the 1978 Spartans did something that shocked football fans around the country.
Hempfield defeated the top team in the state, Penn Hills, and ended the Indians’ 32-game (31-0-1) unbeaten streak.
The headline in the Sept. 17, 1978, Sunday Tribune-Review read: “Penn Hills Streak Ends -- Hempfield Prevails, 17-14. Zajdel’s Boot Does it.”
The Spartans did what few -- except themselves -- believed.
“A week before, a couple of us went down and watched their game against Connellsville, and we were convinced we could beat them,” Hempfield middle linebacker Rob Kane said, “and we did.”
Kane recalled that hot September Saturday afternoon. The temperatures were scorching, and the tempers between the teams also were hot, even during warmups.
“I remember (quarterback) Tommy Flynn and (running back) Dan Biondi trying to goad us before the game,” Kane said. “They were trying to intimidate us, and we weren’t backing down. I remember Coach (Jim) Dick tell us to ignore them and focus your energy on the field.”
Kane said he and his teammates felt they should have won the 1977 game, but Penn Hills scored in the final seconds for a 7-0 victory.
“We felt there were a couple a calls that went their way,” Kane said. “We should have had a safety against them, which could have determined the outcome.”
Defensive end Dave Wolinsky said: “I’ll remember the 1977 game because the size of the crowd. The game was moved to Saturday because of bad weather, and it was the largest crowd I ever played in front of. It was a lot of fun.”
Kane said the opening kickoff set the tone for how physical the game would be. Penn Hills tight end Dave Johnson, who played at West Virginia, knocked Hempfield’s Scott Kuhns out of the game with a big hit.
“That got us fired up,” Kane said.
On Hempfield’s second possession, running back John Sherrow had runs of 30 and 13 yards to set up Tom Matusak’s 1-yard touchdown run.
“I remember (late Hempfield coach Bill Abraham) put in a few wrinkles for the game,” Sherrow said. “One set up my big run when Jay Peoples made a huge block. The other was telling ‘Ski’s’ blocked punt. He noticed right before the snap that the Penn Hills’ ends would drop their heads. He told Dave to walk up on the shoulder when they did it and go.”
Wolinsky’s block came on Penn Hills’ next possession and set up Matusak’s second short touchdown run to put Hempfield ahead 14-0.
“I remember Coach (Greg) Persichetti telling me on the sidelines after I just missed the first punt that I was going to get one,” Wolinsky said. “We worked on blocking punts a lot.”
Sherrow added: “When we went up 14-0, I thought maybe we would rout them. I thought too quickly.”
There was a reason why Penn Hills was dominant in the late 1970s. Flynn, who went on to play safety at Pitt and in the NFL, connected with Bobby Lawson for 50 yards and then to Johnson for 16 yards to make it 14-7 in the second quarter.
The Indians then tied the score late in the first half when Biondi, who was a defensive back at Penn State, scored on a short run. His 35-yard punt return set up the tying score.
Penn Hills missed two scoring chances in the third quarter.
Sherrow recovered a fumble by Elton Jones at the Hempfield 10, and tackle Ron Garris stopped Jones on fourth-and-1 at the Hempfield 24.
Abraham said in the Tribune-Review he was looking for someone to step up and make a play, and Garris did.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Hempfield started the winning drive behind the running of Sherrow, Ed Ross and Dan Diffenderfer, who picked up first downs on two key third-down runs.
As the clock ticked down, Ross came up with a game-saving play.
Hempfield quarterback Scott McQuigan fumbled, and Ross scooped up the ball, reversed to his left, broke several tackles and picked up a first down.
“That was real good thinking on his part,” Abraham told the reporter from the Tribune-Review about Ross. “They forced the fumble with good penetration, and Eddie just made the play.”
If Ross would have just fallen on the ball, Hempfield would have been faced with fourth-and-long.
Penn Hills coach Andy Urbanic said after the game: “The biggest play on that drive was the damn fumble.
“It’s a broken play that ended up the biggest play of the whole dang game. But those are the breaks. In the last 31, 32 games, we got a lot of breaks.”
Three plays later, after Hempfield moved to the 11, Larry Zajdel was called on with strict words from Abraham, “Don’t miss.”
Zajdel’s 29-yard field goal sailed through the uprights with 24 seconds left, and Kane’s interception seconds later ended Penn Hills’ streak.
“Oh yes, I celebrated after the interception,” Kane said. “There was a scrum between the teams after the play near their bench.
“It was the hardest-hitting game I ever played in. Guys were cramping up and throwing up all game.”
Wolinsky agreed with Kane: “I got hit so hard one play I thought I was going to die. One of their ends stuck their helmet in my chest and knocked the wind out of me. I hurt for a month.”
Sherrow said he remembers after boarding the bus to return home, Abraham told the players to put up the windows and put bags against the glass, fearing rocks would be thrown at the bus.
Wolinsky added: “When we got back to school, the fans and band were waiting along the driveway entering the school. It sent chills through us.”
The Spartans were ranked No. 1 the week after the win and were ranked in the national poll.
Hempfield finished the season 7-2-1 in the tough Foothills Conference, losing to Connellsville and Kiski Area the next two weeks. Penn Hills rebounded to win its fourth consecutive WPIAL title.
“We should have beaten both Connellsville and Kiski,” Kane said. “They were both good, but we took them lightly and were emotionally drained.”
But still, for that one September day, the Spartans were on top of the world.