Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s Uniontown High School was blessed with a group of athletes who would capture a state championship in basketball.
Craig Harris was one of those Red Raiders who excelled on the gridiron and the hardwood.
“We went to two different junior high schools, Lafayette and Ben Franklin, but once we got down to the high school we pretty much played everything together,” Harris recalled. “We also played baseball together growing up, we knew each other probably from the age of eight playing baseball, but we really didn’t start start participating in basketball and football until junior high and the summer leagues on the playgrounds.”
The core group of players that went on to capture a state championship for Uniontown was Harris along with Earl Minor, Greg Gabriel, Eric Fee and Brian McLee.
“As sophomores we got to play varsity basketball,” Harris said. “There would be times during a game when coach Lash Nesser would put us in as a group and let us play and even during the summertime he kept us on the road. We traveled everywhere and played in summer leagues all over the place. He kept us together so we bonded pretty well.”
The community in Uniontown saw this young up-and-coming group of athletes and tagged them with greatness early on.
“We all enjoyed playing with each other,” Harris explained. “It wasn’t so much that we saw a championship, but what the community saw. They were expecting big things out of us as sophomores and I thought that if we didn’t do anything we would have been a very big disappointment.”
Harris and his teammates did not disappoint.
In 1978-79 when that group of players were sophomores, the Red Raiders went 21-6 and lost to Latrobe in the WPIAL playoffs, 61-55. In 1979-80 as juniors the Raiders finished 28-4, beating Mount Lebanon, 73-60, and Central Catholic, 71-60, before falling to Beaver Falls in the WPIAL playoffs, 64-56. In the PIAA playoffs the Red Raiders defeated Perry 81-55 and Altoona 82-78, before Erie McDowell ended their title hopes, downing the Raiders, 65-60. The stage was set for a magical 1980-81 campaign.
Uniontown went 32-2 on their way to a state title. The Raiders marched to the WPIAL championship beating Norwin, 76-62, Bethel Park, 91-53, and Aliquippa in the WPIAL title game, 80-67. In the PIAA playoffs they dispatched Erie Prep, 50-41, Brashear, 79-65, Erie McDowell, 66-50, Altoona, 80-73, and won the state championship with a 73-61 win over Springfield Delco.
With Minor hampered with a knew injury, Harris saved one of his best efforts for the WPIAL title game victory over Aliquippa. He tallied a game high 22 points and the 6-foot senior led both teams in rebounding with 13.
“I had a few big games in the playoffs,” Harris said. “Minor was hurt, he had knee issues, so we needed people to step up and that was one of the things I did. I stepped up in the scoring and my overall play during that time.”
“Harris was just tremendous,” coach Nesser stated after the victory.
Minor had a career-high 29 points in the PIAA championship game. The Red Raiders managed to show their balance despite Minor’s big total. Nesser used just six players until the final minutes of the contest, and three of them besides Minor scored in double figures: Harris had 14 points, Eric Fee 12 and sixth-man Ken Holt 11.
“We really didn’t depend on one player,” Harris explained. “When one player wasn’t having a good night we would go to the next guy and if he wasn’t having a good night we’d go to the next one. We would go 10 deep on our team. Anyone on any given day could step up and carry us.”
The win over Springfield Delco fulfilled the promise that the team showed as sophomores.
“It was a special season,” Harris said. “Some of us felt we should have gone undefeated that year, we lost to Belle Vernon and we lost a game out in Las Vegas in a tournament.”
Harris and his teammates were well aware of the Red Raiders rich history.
“Of course we were aware,” Harris said. “Everyday at practice we would see the plaques on the wall and we would always say to ourselves why couldn’t we be the next team to have a plaque on that wall as being state champions. That was everyday, we looked at that and talked about it.”
All Section 3 honors in basketball were awarded to Harris after his senior season. He tallied 667 points in his career at Uniontown.
Harris excelled on Red Raider football squads that went 7-1-2 in 1978 with a 20-0 loss to Blackhawk in the WPIAL playoffs. In 1979 Uniontown finished 3-8 and in 1980 they posted a record of 7-4.
“I enjoyed playing football at Uniontown,” Harris said. “Some of the guys that I played with we still keep in touch. I enjoyed football very much. I played linebacker and fullback.”
Uniontown football had a coaching change in 1979.
“Coach Render left after my sophomore year and Larry Bielat replaced him,” Harris said.
When Harris graduated from Uniontown in 1981 he almost accepted a football scholarship to Delaware.
“I got pretty banged up when I played football,” Harris explained. “I went out 100 percent and playing linebacker and fullback at 185 pounds I figured I could save some of the punishment on my body by playing basketball. Coach Rudy Marisa came calling from Waynesburg and I decided to play basketball.”
Harris played basketball for two years at Waynesburg on Yellowjacket squads that went 24-6 in 1980-81 and 17-9 in 1981-82.
“I played with some great teammate like Tim Tyler, Ray Natilli, Mark Doppelhauer and Paul Stanley,” Harris said. “I wasn’t a starter and I was seeing time coming off the bench. I thought I could have been doing more, but I wasn’t. I used to hang out with a bunch of football players and I would see the football coach all the time and he said I looked like a defensive back and it swayed me and I quit the basketball team and decided to play football.”
Harris was on Waynesburg football teams that went 6-3-1 in 1983 and 2-6 in 1984.
“I was honorable mention All-American as a free safety my first year of football when I was junior,” Harris recalled. “I was injury prone after that, I was moved to strong safety and I had a back injury, an ankle injury and a pulled groin. I was banged up a lot.”
When Harris graduated he went into the Navy for three years active duty and three years in the reserve. He then worked in corrections for 15 years. In 2005 he worked a couple of years in the after-school program at Uniontown called “Young Inspiration.” He then worked two years at Lowes and for the last 10 years he has been working for Johnson Matthey, an emissions control catalyst manufacturing plant located at the Fayette Business Park.
Harris, 56, has been married to his wife Tamara for seven years and he has three step children.
George Von Benko’s “Memory Lane” column appears in the Monday editions of the Herald-Standard. He also hosts a sports talk show on WMBS-AM radio from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.