Thirty years ago, on a rainy, cold Thanksgiving afternoon, the 1962 Coaldale Tigers football team achieved something that no other squad in the storied history of that school ever attained. With a 14-7 win over arch-rival Lansford, it went through an 11-game schedule undefeated and untied.
Twenty-six players and two coaches, facing a schedule laced with neighborhood rivals and Eastern Conference mainstays, captured the hearts of their fans and their community, and completed a turnaround of a gridiron program that only three years before went through an entire season without winning a game.
The architect of this transformation was a young mentor named Geno Poli, a former Tiger fullback who, along with the savvy of Coaldale coaching legend Tom “Doc” Raymer (a former head coach who served as Poli’s assistant), put the pieces of this great team together.
“They were an intelligent club,” reflected Poli, who still remains in coaching as an assistant line coach for Eastern Conference Class A champion Marian High School.
“We weren’t very big, and there weren’t that many of us, but they had superior intelligence and work ethics,” he added. “We’d make changes, sometimes early in the week, or sometimes at halftime, and they had the ability to pick up on them so quickly. They were an easy team to coach.”
That intelligence factor also carried over off the field, where four members of the senior class received appointments to service academies
Mike Panchura, captain of the squad, graduated from Annapolis and became a Navy Commander and helicopter pilot. Now retired from the service, he lives with his family in Sterling, Va., and works for the Department of Agriculture.
Panchura suffered a leg injury in the 1962 season’s first game and missed the rest of the year, but he was always the inspirational leader of that team.
Norm Nesterak, a 160-pound guard, went to West Point where he graduated in the top five-percent of his class. He answered his country’s call to duty, and was killed in Vietnam when enemy fire shot down the helicopter he was in. He had been in Vietnam less than two weeks, and left a wife and baby.
The Coaldale American Legion now bears his name.
Rich Miller was an outstanding end. He took his skills to Lehigh University where he became that school’s all-time leading receiver. He studied medicine, did his internship at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland while a member of the Naval Reserve before returning to his roots where he is now Dr. Richard C. Miller, OB/GYN, practicing out of the Gnadden Huetten Professional Building in Lehighton.
Dr. Miller caught a lot of passes during his football career, but not nearly as many as the number of babies he has delivered since.
Ed Kassak, the team’s all-state running back and Coaldale’s first Big 33 player, wreaked havoc in the Yankee Conference as a linebacker at the University of Rhode Island.
Later, while serving in the Navy reserve, he played on the same service team two seasons with the legendary Roger Staubach in Pensacola, Fla., before Staubach launched his Hall-of-Fame NFL career with the Dallas Cowboys.
Kassak, now a grandfather, lives in Colorado, and works for OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administartion).
“The best memories I have of that team was the camaraderie we shared,” said Kassak from his Lakewood, Colo. Home this week. ȁIn fact, a lot of us are still close after all these years.
“The biggest accomplishment was beating Lansford our senior yeareven more so than going undefeated. Because, even if we were 0-10 and won on Thanksgiving, that would have salvaged our year, especially because we were seniors.
“Our biggest disappointment was when we lost our leader and captain (Panchura) that first game. Heck, with Punch in there we would have been 15-0, even though we only played 11 games.
George Hoffman, a junior on that squad, who became the starting quarterback in 1963, also received an appointment, and graduated from the Air Force Academy. He is now a prominent physician on the West Coast.
Many other squad members made a name for themselves as teachers, coaches, in law enforcement, engineering, psychology, and other occupations.
The 1962 team was expected to be strongonly six seniors graduated from the 1961 team that went 7-3 under Poli, in what was the school’s first winning season in five years.
But to go unbeaten was a little too much to ask.
The season opened with a two-hour bus drive to Northern Division power, Tunkhannock, in the first-ever meeting of the two orange-and-black-clad foes.
Coaldale scored twice in the fourth quarter and came home with a 20-14 victory and a big boost in their confidence.
On the down side was the loss of Panchura, a hard-running back and defensive player, who would undergo surgery in Philadelphia several weeks later and was lost for the season.
But his final Tiger moments may have been his greatest, as he orchestrated the last quarter heroics by scoring on a 57 yard run, and throwing a 35 yard pass off of a fake punt to Kassak for the winning margin.
“We lost Punch which was a big blow,” Poli remembered. “ut we were lucky enough to have guys like “Tucker” (Tommy Moyer, a senior) and “Sonny” (John Yankovich, a sophomore) who stepped in and picked up the slack.”
Second-year starter Bill Edwards, a senior, was a strong armed quarterback (who later became a high school coach) who was blessed with fine receivers in Miller and lanky end, George “Perky” Priggins. But Coaldale was never considered a passing team.
“We didn’t have to,” Poli explained.
Poli advocated that when you pass, three things can happen, “and two of them are bad,” he often remarked. So he emphasized the running attack with the hard-hitting Kassak and the fleet-footed Yankovich and another underclassman named Bobby Winsko, who in 1963 would emerge as the area’s scoring champion.
Poli always admired the NFL’s Cleveland Browns and especially their star running back Jim Brown (“The best football player God ever breathed life into!”). And his 1962 Coaldale team patterned its attack after those famous Browns teams.
Three Close Games
Following the opener against Tunkhannock, two other games were pivotal in that unbeaten season.
Powerful West Hazleton, a team Coaldale hadn’t beaten since 1955, led the Tigers 12-0 entering the fourth quarter at Harmon Geist stadium during the third game of the season, only to see the Tigers score four touchdowns in the final 12 minutes in animprobable, and spectacular finish.
Yankovich ignited the last quarter explosion with a 45 yard touchdown run, and Kassak scored three more touchdowns in a six minute span.
The Tigers then marched through seven straight opponents by a collective score of 245-21 (a winning margin of 35-3) leading up to the traditional Thanksgiving clash against arch-rival Lansford.
Defense became their forte, as they rang up four shutouts during the streak. Some of the standouts included Bob “Bogie” Griffith (who later captained the Moravian College team before embarking on a career with the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms enforcement), and Thom “Coojie” Terry, Bobby Cipko, Tommy Sabol and Martin Kodlick, among others.
In the offensive line, Sabol and Nesterak became affectionately known as Coaldale’s “Watch Charm” guards. Neither weighed more than 150 pounds. Terry, Griffith, John Parfitt (who was also the team’s place kicker) were the big guys up front.
The Lansford battle would be the final Thanksgiving game ever played on the Coaldale field, and the crowd that showed up for that historic contest was one of the biggest to ever watch a game there.
Lansford was a heavy underdog. But they weren’t going to lie down and hand the Tigers their unbeaten season. They played the role of spoilers to the end, before succumbing 14-7 as Kassak scored two touchdowns in the third quarter on a run and a short pass from Edwards.
The Panthers, with standout Donnie Fredericks running the attack from the shotgun formation, drove to the Tigers’ 5-yard line in the final minutes, but Coaldale preserved the victory with a heroic goal-line stand.
Two years later there would be no more Coaldale High School when the merger of the Panther Valley District was finalized.
Poli would move on to coach in such places as Ashland and Marian.
COALDALE’S ’62 SEASON
By Bob Urban
TIMES NEWS Staff
No trip down memory lane would be complete without a game-by-game rundown of Coaldale High School’s undefeated, untied football season.
COALDALE 20 TUNKHANNOCK 14
Mike Panchura’s 57-yard run and 35-yard pass to Ed Kassak off a fake punt resulted in two fourth quarter touchdowns that rallied the Tigers against their Northern Division opponent. Panchura, captain of the team, suffered a leg injury and would not play another game all season.
COALDALE 47 JIM THORPE 0
The Tigers jumped out to a 27-0 halftime lead. Sonny Yankovich scored on a 72-yard pass and run, as quarterback Bill Edwards passed to end Rich Miller who, in turn, lateraled to Yankovich. Kassak had two touchdowns, and Thorpe never threatened against the Tiger defense.
COALDALE 27 WEST HAZLETON 12
Trailing 12-0 entering the fourth quarter to a team they hadn’t beaten in seven years, Coaldale staged a furious fourth-quarter rally for their third win. Yankovich triggered the victory with a 45 yard touchdown run early in the period, and Kassak followed with three touchdowns in a six-minute period.
COALDALE 47 CASS TOWNSHIP 0
Streaking to a 27-0 halftime lead, the Tigers were never threatened as Yankovich and Kassak each scored twice, and Bill Edwards, George Priggins, and Martin Kodlick each tallied once.
COALDALE 27 SHENANDOAH 7
Shenandoah was supposed to give the Tigers a big test, but Tucker Moyer had a big game at linebacker and Kassak scored twice as Coaldale ran its record to 5-0. Rich Miller was on the receiving end of a 23 yard touchdown pass from Edwards, and Edwards also scampered for a 7-yard touchdown.
COALDALE 32 SCHUYLKILL HAVEN 7
Bob Winsko set the tone by returning the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown. Edwards, Miller, and Kassak also had TDs, as did Moyer, who picked up a fumble and rumbled 35 yards for the score.
COALDALE 41 NESQUEHONING 0
The winning streak reached seven as the Tigers blasted neighborhood rival Nesquehoning. Kassak continued his scoring assault with a 45 yard interception return and a pass from Edwards. Yankovich tallied on a 61-yard run, Priggins had a fumble recovery in the end zone, Miller tallied on a 36-yard pass and Winsko capped the performance by returning an interception 96 yards.
COALDALE 31 KULPMONT 7
A Thursday night game at Kulpmont resulted in Coaldale’s eighth straight victory. Miller had a big game, catching four of Edwards’ passes, two for touchdowns. Edwards had more than 200 yards passing on the evening as Kulpmont shut down Coaldale’s ground game. Edwards, Priggins, and Winsko each scored. Priggins’ touchdown came after Moyer blocked a punt. Winsko’s touchdown was a result of some razzle-dazzle, as Kassak threw a halfback pass to Priggins, who lateraled to Winsko who scored on the 35-yard play.
COALDALE 41 ASHLAND 0
Ashland was no match as the Tigers roared to a 28-0 halftime lead and won 41-0. Miller, Edwards, Yankovich and Winsko each scored and Kassak tallied twice.
COALDALE 27 SUMMIT HILL 0
The streak reached 10 at the expense of another neighborhood rival, Summit Hill. It marked the 33rd time in 37 meetings Coaldale had beaten the Hillers. Coaldale had 373 yards rushing. Lineman R.J. Hoffman set up a touchdown with a fumble recovery, and Kassak had more than 200 yards rushing on the afternoon.
COALDALE 14 LANSFORD 7
A standing-room only crowd filled Coaldale stadium for the annual Thanksgiving clash against the arch-rival Lansford Panthers, who were huge underdogs. But Lansford surprised Coaldale and went to the shotgun offense, and led by Donnie Fredericks came close to pulling the upset of the season. Fredericks carried 22 times in the game and gave Lansford a 7-0 first period lead with a seven yard run. Lansford blocked three Coaldale punts during the game, but in the second half Coaldale drove in for the tying score when Kassak went in from the two and then plunged for the extra point. The Tiger defense later forced Lansford to punt from its end zone and Kassak returned the kick from midfield to the five, where two plays later he took a three yard swing pass from Edwards for the go-ahead score. Edwards scored the final point on a plunge. Lansford threatened late in the game, as Fredericks drove his team the length of the field. But the Tiger defense, led by Bob “Bogie” Griffith, who earlier in the game, had recovered a fumble, stiffened at the five and held the Panthers on downs to preserve the win.