Imagine a basketball team on the high school level that produces a Pro Football Hall of Famer and a player who cuts down the nets with an NCAA basketball champion.
Place those two individuals with a group of players who played aggressive defense and forced opposing teams to turn over the ball at an alarming rate, and you have the 1972-73 Ringgold High School basketball team.
Ringgold’s roster that season included senior Ulice Payne and junior Joe Montana.
Payne was twice a first team all-state player. He played for Marquette University and helped the team win a national championship in 1977 in Al McGuire’s final game as coach. Payne went on to a successful law career, and in 2002 was hired as President and CEO of the Milwaukee Brewers. He still lives in Wisconsin, and is managing member of Addison-Clifton, LLC, which provides advisory services on global trade.
As far as his presence on the basketball court, Payne was as good a leader as he was a player.
“Ulice Payne is a natural leader,” said Charles Stacey, one of Payne’s mentors at Ringgold. “People are first attracted to him by his imposing physical presence. However, his intelligence, erudition, compassion and wonderful sense of humor made him truly extraordinairy.”
Montana, nicknamed the “Comeback Kid” during his days as a quarterback at Notre Dame, went on to win three Super Bowl MVP awards with the San Francisco 49ers.
In that 72-73 season, Ringgold won the WPIAL championship by defeating General Braddock for the second time, 54-47, before 8,900 fans at the Civic Arena. The Rams built a 17-point lead in the game before General Braddock pulled to within four points midway through the fourth quarter. But Mel Boyd, a 5-10 guard who scored a game-high 16 points, made a jumper and Mike Brantley scored on a fast-break and Ringgold regained momentum and was on its way to the title.
The Rams lost in overtime in the state semifinals to, you guessed it, General Braddock. The next day, Ringgold defeated Chester, 74-65, in the third-place game.
The road to the state finals was not an easy one. Belle Vernon and Ringgold ended the regular season tied for first place in Section 4 with 11-1 records. A tiebreaker game was needed, and Ringgold scored the game’s first 10 points, led by 17 at halftime and cruised to a 66-51 win at California State College. Scott Nedrow scored 25 points for the Rams.
On the way to the WPIAL championship, the Rams beat Valley (66-39) as Payne scored 18 points before a crowd of 11,673, and then ran past Aliquippa (67-53) in the semifinals, putting five players in double figures.
Broadcaster and writer George Von Benko, who covered high school basketball in the 1970s, remembers the 1972-73 Rams.
“Payne was an inside force. Scott Nedrow, a shooting guard was always on target beyond 15 feet. But it was their press that made them good,” Von Benko recalled.
“In January of ’73, they played a pretty good Laurel Highlands team and beat them 68-58. They forced Laurel Highlands to turn the ball over 32 times. They (the Rams) could do it all – score inside and outside and play aggressive defense.”
Payne and Montana each scored 13 points in that win over Laurel Highlands, which like Ringgold, entered the game undefeated in section play.
The trio of Payne, Montana and Nedrow had a lot of help from Brantley and Boyd. The Rams, under head coach Fran LaMendola, had good chemistry and everyone in the lineup was a superb athlete. All five starters would distinguish themselves in NCAA Division I athletics.
Joe Lopez had a lot to do with the success of the team. A junior high basketball coach, Lopez spotted Ulice Payne, a 6-2 clarinet player, in the school hallway. After a brief discussion with Payne’s music teacher, Lopez was able to convince Payne to turn in his woodwinds for the hardwood.
Montana was such a good basketball player that he reportedly turned down a basketball scholarship offer from North Carolina State, which won the NCAA title in 1974.
The 1972-73 Ringgold Rams were 29-2 and won the school’s first WPIAL basketball championship. Though they came up short in the state finals that season, Ringgold was able to win a state title in 1995, beating Willamsport for the Class AAAA championship.
Bill DiFabio writes a bi-weekly column on local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.