Going into the 1982 Cross Country season, expectations for Gateway’s harriers were running high. The ‘81 squad had finished 2ND in the WPIAL and only two of the talented top ten runners from that team had graduated, neither of whom was consistently among the top five. In addition these young men were motivated by the disappointment generated by their 10TH place finish at the PIAA Championships in 1981, a conclusion dictated by a failure to remain focused on the season-long goal of a state title in the bitterly snowy, cold and windy conditions in State College . Throughout the ‘82 season, constant reminders of the factors that led to that disheartening finish served to keep the individuals on the squad focused on their team goals — WPIAL and PIAA Championship gold! The boys who made up the nucleus of the ‘82 team had been pointing toward these championship goals since their freshmen season when it became abundantly clear from their performances that they had exceptional talent and heart combined with a dedication that maintained would take them to unparalleled heights. Over those first three years, these young men had continued to develop those talents, and going into the season, their names dominated the Gateway records of All-Time top performances on various courses and in numerous championship meets. However, the final scenes of the ‘81 season served as a constant reminder that talent and potential alone do not win championships; that those factors needed to be combined with individual sacrifice and dedication, team unity, hard work, and a little luck if they were to stand together on the championship podium.
The seeds of that championship season were sown on July 6, when the team began to meet daily at 8:00 A.M. Monday through Saturday for summer conditioning marked by long O.D (Over-distance) runs in and out of Boyce Park over the various loops plotted and run by a long succession of Gateway runners — the Fruit Loop, Short Cemetery, Big Cemetery, Primate, the Mine Loop, Long 286, the Unity and Old Frankstown loops, University Park, the Restricted Area Loops, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The miles logged together during that summer laid the foundation both physically and mentally for the challenge of the tougher anaerobic conditioning which began in August, training anchored by 440’s run on the Interval Path, hills and hill circuits run on Killer and Agony and Bush Hill, and twenty to thirty minute tempo runs on the trails through Boyce Park. If someone slept in, Coach LaBuff would show up in short order at his door to remind him of where he really wanted to be and to transport him there. More than once the coach clambered through the basement window of a certain runner’s home to shake him awake and take him to practice. Just as important as the conditioning during those hot summer months were the bonds formed between team members, bonds rooted in the shared challenges of practice, mutual respect (if not liking), and a common goal – a state title – which superceded their individual differences and welded them together into a group of runners who collectively refused to lose under any circumstances, a squad acknowledged by many as one of the best teams in Pennsylvania history. These young men remained undefeated throughout the 1982 season, racing unbeaten through a challenging dual meet schedule which included three of the top seven teams in Pennsylvania, and winning all five invitational championship meets in which they participated. They wrapped up the season by winning the WPIAL Championship at Hartwood Acres and then the PIAA Championship at Lehigh University.
The competitive season began informally with the traditional Alumni race in which, as expected, the Gators crushed the Alumni, putting six runners in front of former number one Alan Joly who had finished 15TH in the WPIAL in 1980. As expected, the Gators were led by Gavin Chafin, John (J.T.) Thomas, and Greg (The Duke) Sherman who had finished 5TH , 8TH, and 13TH in the WPIAL in 1981. However, the first key to the Gators’ season long success revealed itself in the fourth place finish of Bryan Stone, a first year senior runner who would continue to play a major role in the team’s success throughout the season. Bryan’s unexpected prowess not only revealed a deeper talent pool, it also served notice to veterans Darin Uhrig, Rick McGee, Stan Kljucaric, and Scot Stevens that they would have to fight to hold their places on the varsity squad. This helped to dispel any pre-conceived notions about automatic berths, a revelation which sparked a season-long competition which provided the Gators with an unparalleled depth of quality runners, each of whom had to continuously improve in order to play an active role in this championship season. In fact by the end of the season Gateway’s varsity was so deep and talented that they would have won the state title even if any one of their top five runners had dropped out of the race.
The Gators opened their season formally on September 2ND in a dual meet with Penn Hills at home on the hilly 2.5 mile course in Boyce Park. The Indians would end the season as the #3 team in the state, and they were led by eventual PIAA individual champion Eric Carter. Gateway blitzed them 21-38, taking seven of the top ten places and putting twelve runners in front of Penn Hills’ fifth man, a pack which included freshman Dave Consbruck, senior Mark Steimer, and junior Dick Fiscus. Carter finished third behind both Gavin Chafin and John Thomas.
One week later the team traveled to Schenley Park where they defeated a determined, talented, and inspired Central Catholic team that would eventually finish 7TH at the PIAA meet in November. Once again, Thomas, Chafin, and Sherman finished 1-2-3.
On Saturday, September 11TH , the squad competed in the California Invitational against a field of 19 teams which included Central Catholic and North East, a powerful team which would go on to win the PIAA 1982 AA Championship. Gateway crushed the field, putting five runners in the top fifteen and scoring 39 points to beat Central by 66 points and North East by 82 points. Gavin Chafin took first place overall, establishing a course record of 16:07.9 over the 3.1 mile course, a record which remains unbroken to date. John Thomas placed 2nd, Greg Sherman 8th, Darin Uhrig 13th, and Bryan Stone 15th, with Stan Kljucaric close behind in the 30th spot in the field of 112 runners.
The following Saturday the Gator harriers dominated the Tri-State Coaches Championship Meet, totaling 26 points to runner-up Penn Hills 76 as they put all seven varsity boys among the top 21 finishers. Chafin, Thomas, and Sherman turned in another command performance on the Hartwood Acres course, sweeping the first three places, once again defeating eventual PIAA Champion Eric Carter of Penn Hills and also PIAA 9th place finisher Steve Balkey of Fox Chapel. The Gators’ Rick McGee finally flashed expected form, finishing 9th, with Darin Uhrig (11th), Bryan Stone (17th), and Stan Kljucaric (21st) in hot pursuit.
After crushing a strong North Hills team 18-39 despite missing Uhrig and Stone due to illness, the Gators decided to find new competition by traveling to Erie to compete in the Gannon Invitational Championships. The results were the same as the Gators almost shut out the competition, scoring 17 points as they garnered six of the top eight places. Chafin placed first in 16:14, narrowly missing Tom Tobin’s course record of 16:10. Thomas was 2nd, Sherman 3rd, Uhrig 5th, McGee 6th, and Kljucaric 8th, while 7TH man Scot Stevens, running for injured Bryan Stone, placed 22nd.
The following week began with a double-dual meet on Tuesday against Norwin and Franklin on Franklin’s home course. The team won easily, beating Franklin 23-36 and Norwin 16-44 without either McGee or Sherman who were held out with minor injuries. Chafin and Thomas finished one-two once again, and Chafin set a new course record of 16:11, smashing that originally set by 1980 PIAA runner-up Ed Ziegler of Norwin (16:42). Both Chafin and Thomas (16:21) broke the old record, both pushed by Brian Grimm of Franklin, the eventual 3rd place finisher in the 1982 PIAA Championship meet. That Saturday the Gators won their fourth invitational championship, defeating 18 of the WPIAL’s best teams on the Hartwood Acre course which would eventually host the WPIAL title meet. There for the first time, the Gator runners faced off with perennial state champion North Allegheny, the team which appeared to pose the most formidable threat to Gateway’s title hopes. Gateway’s runners turned in another dominating team performance, scoring 46 points to 2nd place North Allegheny’s 94 and Penn Hills’ 104 as Chafin, Thomas, and Sherman finished 3rd, 4th, and 7th respectively, while Rick McGee (13th), Darin Uhrig (19th), and Bryan Stone (22nd) provided the finishing depth which crushed N.A. After this race, sensing an attitude of complacency in the troops, Coach LaBuff challenged the team for even better performances, asking them to work to reduce the gap between the number one and number five runners to thirty seconds and that between number one and seven to less than a minute to ensure a PIAA title.
The following Tuesday Gateway traveled to North Allegheny to face Hall of Fame Coach Russ Cerny’s Tigers, a team which was convinced that they could beat the Gators. This team would eventually finish 2nd in the WPIAL behind the Gators and 6th in the state championship meet. Despite LaBuff’s warnings and N.A.’s obvious readiness, the Gators as a team came out flat and N.A. settled six runners in behind Chafin and Thomas over the first 2.3 miles of the 2.8 mile course. The Gators appeared to be a beaten team. McGee had dropped out, a victim of the flu; and while Darin Uhrig had begun to move up, it appeared to be too little, too late, and Duke Sherman appeared to be exhausted. In fact Coach LaBuff had already congratulated Coach Cerny of North Allegheny on their “win.” But the Gator runners simply refused to lose. The race finished on N.A.’s track, and when Darin Uhrig and Greg Sherman hit the cinders, they each looked within and found a champion’s heart. Uhrig made up over 30 yards in the last 300 to pass N.A.’s third man, while Sherman somehow made up over 50 yards in that last 300 to pass three N.A. runners and secure the victory 26-30. When asked about the close call later, Coach LaBuff remarked that he couldn’t have asked for a better result. He felt that the team had been so dominant lately that they needed a wake-up call to stave off the complacency which could result in a disastrous end to a great year.
That weekend, in the A Division at the prestigious Central Catholic Invitational, the Gators served notice that they were not to be denied. They steamed past a loaded field of teams, putting five men in the top nineteen places in the best team performance in the fifty year history of the meet as they beat North Allegheny by 31 points, Penn Hills by 43 points, and Central Catholic by 73 points. All five runners broke fifteen minutes on the 2.85 mile course, a feat matched by three other teams (all state champions) in the history of the meet, but Thomas (4th) and Chafin (5th) ran times that day which put them among the top six times ever run on that course (even to this day). Sherman, who insisted that he “stunk up the course” finished 13th, McGee 16th, and Uhrig 19th.
As is so often the case in life, that great victory did not come without cost. In the stretch run of the race, Chafin suffered a hip injury which would hinder him off and on for the duration of the season, an injury which continued to worsen and, perhaps, cost him an individual PIAA title. As a precaution, Coach LaBuff held him out of the race with Penn Hills and Butler scheduled for the Monday after the Central Catholic Invitational. To complicate matters and even further jeopardize their chances of winning this race against a quality opponent, the team was also without the services of Bryan Stone who had aggravated a hamstring injury, and both Rick McGee and Stan Kljucaric, though determined to run, were struggling with stomach problems. Before the race began Coach LaBuff reminded the runners that great teams find a way to overcome adversity and that this team had the depth to beat even a team of Penn Hills’ caliber. As in the North Allegheny meet, the team snatched victory from defeat. John Thomas ran perhaps the best race of his career, beating eventual PIAA champion Eric Carter of Penn Hills by 29 seconds in setting a course record on Penn Hills Alcoma course which continues to stand to this day. Through 2.5 miles of the 3 mile race, however, the Penn Hills runners established what appeared to be an insurmountable lead as McGee and Kljucaric were unable to finish, while Sherman and Uhrig, running two and three respectively for Gateway, trailed the Penn Hills’ second and third runners by significant margins. Once again, these two champions rallied to pass their respective counterparts in the last 100 yards, but it did not appear to be enough since Penn Hills still had two boys in front of Gateway’s fourth and fifth runners. This time, the Gators were rescued by the finishing rush of senior Mark Steimer and super-frosh David Consbruck, both of whom surged past Penn Hills’ number five runner to secure the victory against the (eventual) #3 team in the state, a win earned without the services of five of their top eight runners.
The following Friday, October 15th, the Gators wrapped up their dual meet season at 8-0 with an easy win over Fox Chapel on Gateway’s 2.5 mile course in Boyce Park. In their final race on their home course, the boys “did themselves proud,” with all but two runners setting personal marks on that course. Chafin, set a new school record of 12:49.4 on the course, breaking the mark set by the great Don McKnight. That record still stands.
As the final three races of the season approached, the Gators appeared ready to seize the prizes they had worked so hard for. However, at the WPIAL Central Division Qualifier, although they won fairly easily, beating both Penn Hills and Central Catholic again, there were signs that the pressures of the season were taking a toll. Thomas (3rd), Chafin (5th), Uhrig (16th), McGee (17th), and Kljucaric (23rd) ran solid if unspectacular races, but Sherman, normally a close 3rd to Gavin and J.T., was 24th, a minute behind them, and Bryan Stone’s injured hamstring kept him out of the race. In addition in the interim between the Qualifier and the WPIAL finals, it became clear that Gavin’s hip injury had progressed past the “aggravation” stage and was a real concern. He was forced to suspend training for the week and the team wondered aloud if they could win without his contributions.
The WPIAL Championship race was a near disaster, but once again, this team refused to lose as the individuals within the squad picked up the slack created by another’s injury or off-day. J.T., in essence running without his partner, still ran a strong race, finishing 5th just behind four runners who finished in the top eight at the PIAA Championships a week later. Despite the pain in his hip, Gavin struggled to a 19th place finish, with Darin close behind in 26th. Duke Sherman, despite a very poor start, fought his way back to 35th place, but from there things looked bleak. Runner after runner from North Allegheny, Penn Hills, Central Catholic, and Seneca Valley raced past Coach LaBuff at his vantage point at the bottom of the hill from which runners climbed 600 meters to the finish line; but Gateway’s fifth man did not appear. Finally, Stan Kljucaric came into view, with Bryan Stone not far behind him. Much to his surprise, he heard the coach’s call. “We’re in trouble! You’re our fifth man! You’ve got to go! Go! Go!” Stan must have passed twenty or twenty five runners in that frantic 600 yard sprint to a 53rd place finish, with Bryan right behind him in 56th place. At the time it didn’t look like it was enough. The boys of the team were sure that they had not even qualified for the PIAA Championship. They sprawled on the ground beside their bus, some of them in tears, reminded, perhaps, of the dismal finish to the ‘81 season. Coach LaBuff felt just as bleak, but he hovered near the scorers tent, hoping beyond reason that they had at least made the top four and qualified for the State meet. Then the results were posted: 1. Gateway 138 2. North Allegheny 145 3. Central Catholic 146 4. Penn Hills 176 5. Seneca Valley 178
The Gators had won the WPIAL Championship! They had beaten four of the top eight teams in Pennsylvania with their worst race of the season!
That near-disaster fueled the Gator drive to near-perfection the following week on the fields of Lehigh at the PIAA Championship meet. In a race dominated for the most part by the teams and individuals from the WPIAL, the Gateway boys ran their best race as a team, winning the PIAA title and crushing the second place team from Abington Heights by 106 points and third place Penn Hills by 214 points. The first five Gateway runners streaked across the finish line with only thirty-one seconds between them. John Thomas led the black-uniformed Gator parade, finishing 12TH in 16:07 with Gavin Chafin in 13TH two seconds behind him despite the pain in his hip. The Duke, Greg Sherman, finished 21st only five seconds back in 16:14, while Darin Uhrig closed to 37th, in 16:30 with Rick McGee, 54th, 16:38 in tow behind him. Bryan Stone (17:07) and Stan Kljucaric (17:23) wrapped up the Gators’ championship parade, running fine times despite being caught in the crush of quality runners.
Perhaps the reasons for the team’s win are summed up in the following anecdotes:
- In the moments following the posting of the results and prior to the awarding of the PIAA Championship trophy, Coach LaBuff in conversation with Gavin Chafin remarked that his one regret on this day was that Gavin had not been healthy enough to challenge for the individual title. Gavin’s response? “Coach, WE won!” Gavin’s focus, like that of the other kids, was on the goals that the team had set for itself, not on the accolades or recognition that came with individual achievement.
- After the race, Rick McGee said that at one point, exhausted, he told Darin that he was going to drop out. Darin’s response? “If you do, I’ll kill you!” Rick said, “I believed him!” This story captures so many elements of the reasons for the team’s success – their passion for winning; their rejection of losing; their dependence on each other; their knack for willing their way to victory when defeat seemed certain.
- When the team pulled into Monroeville on returning from the State meet, they were greeted by congratulatory signs created by the rest of the team, the members of the self-named Losers’ Club who were as excited about the championship as if they had run the race themselves. They genuinely felt a part of that state title; that they had contributed something to it. These boys were anything but losers. As a unit, they could have beaten eighty percent of the teams in the state. But instead of bemoaning the circumstances that put them on a team with these great runners, they shared in the victories and gloried in the team’s accomplishments, at times providing the push needed to make the varsity runners great or the depth to sustain them when they faltered.