Three years before “Star Wars,” two years before “Rocky,” and one year before “Jaws,” an area high school sports team put together a blockbuster of a season.
It contained the elements of a classic box-office thriller, a gradually unfolding plot, character development and a dramatic conclusion that a Hollywood screenwriter would love.
That team was the 1974 Wickliffe baseball team, a member of The News-Herald’s inaugural High School Sports Hall of Fame Class, and it accomplished something never previously done in Lake County high school sports — it brought home a state championship in a team sport (in sports based on individual accomplishments, Mentor, Fairport and Kirtland had previously claimed boys track and field state titles).
Wickliffe, a Class AAA school at the time, had a nothing-to-write-home-about 10-8 regular season. But the Blue Devils got hot at the right time. On the strength of two ace pitchers, alert baserunning, clutch hitting and fielding, and a never-say-die attitude, the Blue Devils went 8-0 in the tournament and finished off an improbable playoff run with an equally improbable, come-from-behind, 6-5 win over Cincinnati Princeton in the state championship game.
Wickliffe’s enrollment — and the city’s population — was at its peak in the early ’70s. The population of the city at that time was about 20,000 (today it is between 12,000 and 13,000). Graduating classes in those days could number as high as 350. Today, there are about 450 students in the school as a whole.
Consequently, Wickliffe was placed in Class AAA, the largest of Ohio’s three classes at the time. Even so, Wickliffe was among the smallest of the AAA schools, and would probably have been Division II under today’s classifications.
The head coach of the Blue Devils was Ken Ranallo, who was also a well-respected English teacher for many years at the school. A graduate of St. Joseph (now Villa Angela-St. Joseph), Ranallo was an assistant coach before taking over the head-coaching reins in 1971. As a head coach, he experienced success right away, with his first two teams advancing to district finals before enduring heartbreaking losses.
Ranallo believed the 1973 team was his most talented, but that team inexplicably struggled to a 7-11 record and an early playoff exit. On the heels of that disappointing season, the Blue Devils returned a handful of seniors and were laden with talented, but inexperienced, juniors entering the 1974 campaign. Ranallo’s expectations, in his own words, “weren’t high.” The road ahead looked to be long.
One name stood out among the returnees — senior Bob Costa. The 6-foot-1, 195-pounder was the team’s best all-around player. He was a starting right fielder and was also expected to be the top pitcher. An arm injury dogged Costa throughout the season, but the senior gamely played through the pain. Joining Costa in the outfield were Greg DiMeolo, an excellent athlete and son of Wickliffe’s superintendent; Mike Mayernik, a speedster who made some highlight-reel plays; and Roger Coxwell on days Costa pitched. The infield consisted of Keith Tyndall at first base, Dave Berkey, another speedster and playmaker at second, Dan Stopp at shortstop, and Nick Gibson at third, who was spelled at times by Steve Arko. Mike Sabbath was the main catcher, backed up by Ray Sadlik. Contributors off the bench included Ron Kolencik, Dennis George, Mick Jones, Mike Contenza, Tim Sikon and current Lake Catholic volleyball coach Rich Severino.
The long-haired Blue Devils were a free-spirited, self-confident bunch often referred to as “unorthodox” or “non-conformists.”
The player who most epitomized these descriptions was the team’s other ace, Tim Fende. The oddest of oddballs, Fende also was often dominant on the mound. He came at hitters with a variety of deliveries from different arm slots, and was at times unhittable. He played a crucial role.
Ranallo is revered by many of his former charges. He emphasized conditioning, “baseball-situation” drills and positive mental imaging. He famously instructed his players to read “Psycho-Cibernetics,” the psychological text by Maxwell Maltz that emphasized positive thinking for success.
“He was a tremendous coach, more than we understood at the time,” said DiMeolo, now a Chardon resident and pastor of Christ Community Church in Willoughby. “Even more than the positive imaging, which is huge in sports, he always had us working on fundamentals. We were a fundamentally sound team.”
Arko remembers Ranallo as a “stickler for detail.”
Costa said, “He was the greatest coach. He had us in great shape. He commanded respect. He had every one of us believing that no one could beat us.”
Act 1: April
Wickliffe was an independent in the 1973-74 school year after having spent four years as a member of the Lake Shore League. The Blue Devils scheduled neighboring schools, some twice, with nothing but the tournament to play for. Wickliffe was 6-2 through April 25, with a key development being the emergence of Fende as the team’s ace. He threw a no-hitter against Kirtland, and beat Harvey and Mentor with a pair of two-hitters. The Blue Devils then dropped a pair to St. Joseph and Riverside, after which they held a team meeting to hash out their problems with tournament play approaching.
Act 2: May
The Blue Devils began the month with a sectional semifinal against Madison. Wickliffe prevailed, 3-1 in a tight game about which Ranallo said, “We very easily could have lost.”
The Blue Devils did lose to Madison the following day in a regular-season game, 10-6. Wickliffe finished 4-4 over its final eight regular-season games, but it should be noted that Ranallo rested several of his starters to keep them fresh for the tournament games.
Fende pitched a one-hitter to knock off Harvey, whose starting pitcher Tim Starkey would go on to be the Red Raiders basketball coach years later, 3-0 in a sectional final. Wickliffe defeated Hubbard, 6-4, and Ashtabula, 5-1, in district games played at Lakeland Community College. For the remainder of the playoffs, Ranallo started Fende in the semifinal game and Costa in the final. The strategy’s success continued through the regional at Euclid. The Blue Devils knocked off Fairview, 4-3, a victory preserved by great fielding plays by Fende and Costa. The Wickliffe bats then came alive in a 10-4 win over a strong Padua squad in the regional final. It was on to Columbus.
Act 3: Columbus in June
It was uncharted territory for the Lake County school.
“I was nervous the whole time we were in Columbus,” Ranallo admitted. “I couldn’t let the kids see it, but it affected my body. They were never nervous. They were supremely confident.”
The Blue Devils’ momentum was blunted initially as a thunderstorm hit Columbus and led to the postponement of the state semifinal against Toledo St. Francis. To get their minds off the game, Ranallo took the team to see the movie “The Sting.” The game was played on Saturday, June 1, and turned out to be a nailbiter throughout. Fende pitched a two-hitter, Stopp drove in Costa with a fourth-inning single, and the Blue Devils survived a performance rife with mental errors and missed signs that Ranallo termed “the worst-played game I’ve ever coached” to win 1-0 and advance to the state final.
Monday, June 3, was championship game day, against mighty Cincinnati Princeton. The Vikings owned a 29-13 record, and must have appeared like a college team to the Blue Devils.
“They were impressive. They were huge, their coach was huge,” said Ranallo. “They did this pregame drill that was so impressive, I was hoping the kids weren’t watching.”
Costa, who went on to have a brief minor-league career in the Indians and Cardinals organizations, remembered Princeton, “was supposed to be the best in the state, like no one had a chance to beat them.” DiMeolo recalled the two teams stayed at the same hotel, and that Princeton was “quite confident that they were going to destroy us. Riding on the elevator with them, they were mocking us, saying ‘Where is Wixville? Do you guys play baseball there?'”
The game went the Vikings’ way in the early going. Costa had surrendered three hits through the first four innings, but Princeton held a 5-1 lead with all of its runs being unearned. Fende, who had been the winning pitcher against St. Francis, begged Ranallo to let him relieve Costa, but the coach stuck with his game plan. The team, meanwhile, still felt it could win.
“We didn’t panic,” Costa said. “We knew we could come back and win.”
The tide began to turn in the bottom of the fifth. Costa drove in two with a single to make it 5-3.
Sabbath walked with the bases loaded to make it 5-4, and the Ranallo sent Costa home with some trepidation on a fly ball off the bat of Tyndall to tie the score.
In the bottom of the seventh, Princeton brought ace Steve Nagel, who was 13-0, in from right field to pitch the game into extra innings. DiMeolo greeted him with a sharp double, then Costa singled him over to third. With Stopp at the plate, Nagel uncorked a wild pitch, and DiMeolo instinctively took off for home. “Coach had told me if I saw an opportunity to take it,” DiMeolo said. “Don’t wait for him to say go, just go.”
DiMeolo slid across the plate with the game-winning run, and Wickliffe had done what seemed impossible.
Unbeknownst to the team, the City of Wickliffe had planned a parade for the team upon its return, win or lose. The team bus got a police escort from the freeway onto Bishop Road, and upon rounding the bend toward city hall, the team was greeted by an amazing sight.
“The reception, when we pulled off 271 — whoa!” recalled Arko, who is a Willowick resident and owner of Trophy World in Mentor. “You would have thought that the president was in town.”
“It seemed like the whole city was there,” said Costa.
“It was the best part,” Ranallo said.
Cars were lined up from city hall all the way down Route 84 to the high school with well-wishers who showered their hometown heroes with praise and adulation. The following day, the team was introduced to the crowd before a Indians game against the Texas Rangers — a game that will forever be known in Cleveland sports lore as Ten-Cent Beer Night.
“About the seventh inning I got all the boys out of there,” Ranallo said. “I could tell something was going to happen.”
Ranallo was named Coach of the Year in Ohio, but he was head coach for just one more season, in which Wickliffe fell short of a repeat. He continued as an English teacher at the school until his retirement and was an assistant on the girls slow-pitch softball state champion teams of the early ’90s. He lives in Painesville Township and is a Laketran driver.
DiMeolo played baseball at Kent State before shifting gears and becoming a pastor after Stopp was diagnosed and eventually passed away because of cancer. Costa, after his run in the minors, worked 30 years for Pepsi and is retired and living in Mentor. Sadlik, also a Mentor resident, joined the Navy after high school and is now an electrical engineering contractor. Fende and Tyndall are deceased.
All the participants remember their glory days fondly.
“It’s amazing how the memories will always stay with you,” said DiMeolo.
Mick Jones, a sophomore reserve on the team and now a Toro sales rep living in Concord, said: “We had some special ballplayers. Everything just came together.”
The News-Herald editor at the time, Jim McClellan, may have said it best: “The idea takes a while to sink in. We’ve never had a team state champion from the area in any sport. Whoever comes later, Wickliffe can always say it was the first.”
Editor’s note: Euclid’s 1963 baseball state champions and Benedictine’s football state championship teams were not part of the N-H coverage area when they happened.
1974 Wickliffe baseball roster
- Coach: Ken Ranallo
- Steve Arko, platoon third baseman
- Dave Berkey, second baseman
- Bob Costa, right fielder, pitcher
- Roger Coxwell, outfielder
- Greg DiMeolo, center fielder, pitcher
- Tim Fende, pitcher
- Nick Gibson, third baseman
- Mick Jones, reserve
- Ron Kolenic, reserve
- Mike Mayernik, left fielder
- Mike Sabbath, catcher
- Ray Sadlik, backup catcher
- Rich Severino, reserve
- Dan Stoop, shortstop
- Keith Tyndall, first baseman
- April 4: Wickliffe 6, Glenville 0
- April 11: North 4, Wickliffe 3
- April 12: Wickliffe 7, Cleveland Heights 2
- April 16: Wickliffe 8, Kirtland 0
- April 17: West Geauga 3, Wickliffe 2
- April 19: Wickliffe 7, Harvey 3
- April 24: Wickliffe 8, Cathedral Latin 1
- April 25: Wickliffe 5, Mentor 1
- April 26: St. Joseph 6, Wickliffe 5
- April 29: Riverside 4, Wickliffe 3
- May 1: Wickliffe 3, Madison 1
- May 2: Madison 10, Wickliffe 6
- May 7: Wickliffe 3, Harvey 0
- May 10: Wickliffe 8, St. Joseph 2
- May 13: Wickliffe 6, Hubbard 4
- May 14: Wickliffe 5, Ashtabula 1
- May 15: Wickliffe 3, South 0
- May 16: Wickliffe 9, Mentor 6
- May 17: Mayfield 9, Wickliffe 2
- May 20: Harvey 5, Wickliffe 2
- May 21: Wickliffe 7, Shaw 0
- May 23: North 6, Wickliffe 5 (10)
- May 24: Wickliffe 4, Fairview 3
- May 25: Wickliffe 10, Padua 4
AAA state semifinal
- June 1: Wickliffe 1, Toledo St. Francis 0
AAA state final
- June 3: Wickliffe 6, Cincinnati Princeton 5
By Jay Kron | Correspondent@News-Herald.com