For many, the 1986-87 basketball season started out like any other.
There were expectations. There were teams to keep an eye on and players to watch. This particular year, though, all those players and all those expectations were focused on one team — the Meadville Bulldogs.
In the three years prior to the 1986-87 season, the Bulldogs had advanced to the PIAA Western Finals twice. It was clear that this program was building into something huge. And as '86-87 progressed, Meadville basketball became the hottest ticket in Northwest Pennsylvania.
“I think I had a sense of what was going on,” said then and current head coach Norm Price.
“And as the year went on the crowds grew, especially during road games."
The fans became known as the “Meadville Maniacs.” The team became known as the “Slammin’ Dogs.” And the MASH gymnasium truly lived up to its nickname, “The House of Thrills.”
“We would get to games and the gym was already crowded for the JV games," said Price. "You could sense it was something special.”
With each and every win, most of them not even close, the following grew. Price once recalled that the '86-87 Bulldogs played in front of crowds of 5,000 or more nine times. That attendance swelled to a crowd of 6,000 plus by the time the 'Dogs made it to that year's Western Final against Allderdice, which set the venue record at the Erie Civic Center. That mark has since been broken, but not by a District 10 basketball game.
What drew all these people? Little more than one of the most talented group of basketball players Meadville High School has ever produced.
Let's start with Michael Burnett. He began his varsity career as a freshman and helped the ’83-84 team reach the PIAA Western Final. That team was loaded with such talent as Michael's brother, Paul, and Rich Seidel. Two years later, as a junior, Michael teamed up with what would be the core of the ’86-87 team, plus Anthony Lindsey and Gary Chaney, to reach the Western Final once more.
What makes Burnett the perfect place to start is because in '86-87 he would often get things started for the Bulldogs, grabbing a floating pass from Mike Pero while in flight and slamming it home for an alley-oop dunk. It drove the home crowd wild, and quickly shattered any illusion the opposing team had about leaving the gymnasium with a victory.
This was one of the hallmarks of this team — their ability to play above the rim. Even though the starting lineup averaged just about 6-foot-2, they all could dunk.
“I keep hearing about teams not being tall enough,” said Joey Gray, the team’s defensive stopper. “We were what, two 6-4 guys, 6-2, 6-1 and 6-foot? But we were feisty, quick, fast and determined. We were not going to lose.”
And each and every player played a part.
Burnett was the star, so to speak, and arguably the most recognized to this day. He finished his career as the Bulldogs’ all-time leading scorer with 1,667 points. And he was the high-flyer, able to produce spectacular dunks at a time when Michael Jordan was the talk of the NBA.
Tommy Wofford was the muscle inside. At just 6-2, he was a rebounding machine, capable of guarding players much taller than himself. His dunks were not finesse, but thunderous.
Gray was used mostly as a stopper, but his game went much deeper. He was scrappy, and quite possibly the toughest person on the team. Give him a challenge and he not only met it head on, he plowed through it.
Pero was the facilitator. He was a crafty point guard who always found the open man and always had pinpoint accuracy when lobbing that alley-oop pass to Michael or Donald Burnett or to Wofford. And if you left the lane open, Pero would take the easy layup or slam it home himself.
Then there was Donald Burnett, the junior in the starting lineup. He was bigger than his brother with the range of a rifle. His dunks were not as monstrous as Wofford’s, but they were hardly gentle.
And let’s not forget the bench, with Todd Waid and Brad Mook as the sixth and seventh man. Waid was a key part of the team even with a cast on his wrist. Mook was used for instant long-range offense.
“That," said Price, "was a very special team.”
The coaching staff was not bad either.
Price, who returned to Meadville in 2004 after a 10-year hiatus, is the school’s all-time winningest coach with 388 career victories. Chuck Jones, who coached the Bulldogs from 1994 to 2004, was one of his assistants. Another was Mel Dainty, who has coached the Cochranton boys squad for the past 25 years. And there was Tom Pyle, arguably District 10's best throwing coach in track & field, who has gone on to make the North East boys basketball team into a power up north.
“People forget how good our coaches were,” said Gray.
Together, those four mentors set their players on the path, one that eventually included a 22-2 run through the regular season, and later, a District 10 Class AAAA title.
Come the state playoffs, it appeared as if nothing would stand in the Bulldogs' way.
“We knew we were the best team in the state,” said Wofford.
The 'Dogs marched to that year’s PIAA Western Final. There, in front of a massive crowd, they took on Allderdice, probably their toughest test of the season to that point.
The Dice were taller than Meadville and made use of that advantage. They kept Meadville off balance, and the ’Dogs had trouble getting a lead.
Yet, even with a team as good as Meadville was, it still needs a break or two.
The Bulldogs just happened to get their biggest break on the final play of the game. With the last couple seconds draining off the clock, and the score tied at 52-52, Pero dribbled to the hoop and put up a desperate layup. The ball hit the back of the rim. It bounced straight up into the air. And then it came back down through the net. The Bulldogs won 54-52.
“Most people forget that (before the final shot) I took a 15-footer that was blocked," said Pero. "It came right back into my hands, setting up that layup for the win.”
Up next for the Bulldogs: The PIAA Class AAAA state championship game.
Matthew Digiacomo can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com