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Bellefonte vs. State High: The Lore Behind the War

by on April 06, 2017 9:04 AM

In a rare high school-college doubleheader, Bellefonte and State College will clash in baseball after Saturday's 2 p.m. game between Penn State and Ohio State. If I'm any judge, the high school game will be more exciting than the college contest, for several reasons.

For one, Bellefonte will be returning for the first time to Medlar Field at Lubrano Park after winning their first-ever AAA state baseball championship last spring on that diamond. And what a dramatic season they had in 2016 — beginning with a 1-7 record and ending with seven consecutive playoff victories.

And then there's a second reason for excitement during Saturday's high school game. It matches the Red Raiders and the Little Lions. Maybe you haven't noticed, but these old-time rivals now have a big discrepancy in their enrollments and they play each other rarely in just a couple sports. Football is not included.


Of course, most fans focus on football, not baseball, when dreaming of success against an old-time rival. Football is the game that delivers hard knocks. But as one who played baseball for State High against Bellefonte more than 45 years ago, I can promise you that neither team will be juggling sunflower seeds or counting worms on Saturday. State High vs. Bellefonte is a guarantee of intensity — and a reminder of the broader rivalry that used to be.


The Bellefonte baseball team will return to the site of its first PIAA title when the Raiders face State College on Saturday at Medlar Field. Photo: Centre County Gazette

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It was 1890 when the two Centre County high schools began playing each other in football, and that first contest was won by State College, 21-0. The game took on a special identity in 1941 when the teams began competing for temporary ownership of an iron kettle that was found between the two towns by a pair of Penn State students.

But the Iron Kettle, of course, was just a symbol. The real rivalry was forged in the love-hate relationship between the historic county seat and the upstart college town. And the result of that relationship was a series of crazy stunts like these that were pulled by State High kids in the years surrounding my 1970 graduation:

1969 — State High Girl Rescued by Bellefonte Boyfriend. Patty Hopkins was my close friend who was romantically linked to Rich Condo, a boy from Bellefonte. "It was less than popular," she says, "for a State College girl to date a boy from Bellefonte." But even though Patty was fraternizing with the enemy, she remained true to her school. "The night before the big football game," she recalls, "a carload of my friends drove to Bellefonte High School to taunt anyone we could find. Pulling up in front of the school, we were met by a group of guys who did not appreciate our presence. Before long, the Bellefonte students were rocking our car, attempting to turn it over. I noticed that Rich was part of the mob so I yelled to him to help us. He was able to stop the attack and shouted for us to get out of there fast. We didn't hesitate for a second." And yes, the damsel in distress from State High did eventually marry her Red Raider rescuer.

1970 — Highway Decorated with Paw Prints. Several days before the big game, an undetermined number of State High kids decided to paint huge lions' paw prints on Benner Pike, every quarter mile or so, from State College to Bellefonte. Even after 47 years, folks from both towns appreciate this amazing feat while expressing relief that no one was hurt.

"It was awesome," says Bucky Quici, a former Raider athlete who is now retired from a 34-year career of coaching and teaching in Bellefonte. "The State College kids did those prints right up to the school; it was incredible."

Ron Pifer also recalls the caper with positive memories, and a touch of lingering relief. "The community thought it was a pretty cute idea," says the former Bellefonte wrestling legend who served as a State High coach, teacher and principal. "I think the thing that concerned people most was that it was done on a major highway and they were concerned about the safety of the kids."

Mike Archer was the starting quarterback for the Little Lions that year. His memory of the paw prints is vivid, even though he's seen plenty of other fan escapades as LSU's head football coach and as an assistant coach with various universities and the Pittsburgh Steelers. "When we were riding the bus to the game on Friday afternoon, you could see the paw prints on the road," says Archer, now an assistant coach for the Toronto Argonauts. "We thought it was neat. It obviously had an effect on the way we played because the game wasn't even close — I think we beat them 44 to 12. That's risky business, right there on a main street in Bellefonte (Bishop Street) in the middle of the night, painting a paw print on the road."


Mike Archer, shown here while coaching at Virginia, says his team was boosted by painted paw prints.

1971 — Little Lions Caught in a Whitewash. Speaking of risky business, State High kids caught the downside of risk-taking the next year when they tried to pull off more pre-Kettle shenanigans. As the Centre Daily Times reported on Thursday, Nov. 4, 1971, "Bellefonte police said they apprehended 45 State College High School pupils involved in vandalism at the Bellefonte senior and junior high schools last night. Police said brick walls of both buildings had been painted with a substance that could be whitewash."

According to my special source — a perpetrator who wishes to remain anonymous — the 1970 prank gave birth to an overabundance of excitement and a lack of planning in 1971. "It was well known that we were going to do something," says my friend. "Word got out, and the Bellefonte police were waiting for us. And it was a large group, probably 70 people.

"I was in the second car that pulled in behind the guys with fire extinguishers (loaded with pressurized whitewash). They were getting out of the car and one of the extinguishers goes off — in the car. There was white everywhere, all over the car, inside the windshield, shooting out of the door."

Other students reached the schools and began applying whitewash. But most were caught by the police. Their names were recorded, and they were later required to wash the walls of both schools under the direction of their parents.

Although Archer seemed to think the paw prints helped inspire his team's 1970 victory, I prefer to think it had more to do with athletes like Larry Suhey, Steve Walker, Bruce Ellis and Archer himself. After all, the 1971 whitewash attempt was a fiasco, but that failure didn't keep the team from winning, 48-8.


So what were the kids from Bellefonte doing in those November days that led up to Iron Kettle football games? I don't know about any pranks they might have pulled, but I know they showed lots of spirit. I'll certainly never forget the animated high school student who ripped my "Beat Bellefonte" sign right off my neck when I was a puny seventh-grader.

One year, members of Bellefonte's Pep Club sold "Lick the Lions" lollipops and "Eat 'Em Up Big Red" candy bars. Another year, students made a sign that said "Beat South Bellefonte," a subtle put-down of that school on the other end of Benner Pike.

And then there's my favorite example of Red Raider spirit — a bonfire custom that was described to me by my buddy Bucky. "We always had a State College player (in effigy) with his jersey number on it and it would be burned in the bonfire," says Quici. "If you did that now, your school would probably be suspended for something."


Bucky Quici, a former Bellefonte athlete, teacher and coach, always enjoyed the rivalry with State College.


Although the old-time rivalry sometimes got testy, most of the shenanigans were done in good fun. And some great friendships developed. Consider the 1958 PIAA wrestling championships when a massive winter storm dropped mounds of snow and forced a one-week postponement. All local schools were closed that week, so competitors struggled to find workout facilities. The only option was Penn State's Rec Hall. That was fine for State High's Jim Byers, but it wasn't so good for Bellefonte's Pifer. He couldn't make the drive from his home.

Although the boys hardly knew each other, Jim (who later became the father of broadcaster Jeff Byers) invited Ron to stay in the Byers' home that week. In those days, says Pifer, "Bellefonte people didn't stay with State College people, and State College people didn't stay with Bellefonte people." Jim failed to capture a state title but Ron won his second, and the two became lifelong friends.

Another person who developed friendships on both ends of Benner Pike was Coach Jim Williams. He played football for State High and for Penn State, then immediately after his college graduation he began teaching — and eventually coaching — at Bellefonte. There, he was a tremendous success in developing tough-as-nails linemen. So, of course, State High reached out to its talented alum, and Williams moved to "South Bellefonte" as head coach.

To their credit, Bellefonte folks wished Williams well. "Most of the people were really happy for me... and gracious," says Williams. "As for Bill Luther, other than my father and my father-in-law and Joe P. (Paterno), he was probably the most influential person in my life."

Williams glows as he recalls his friendship with Luther but then laughs about the competition that developed when he returned to his alma mater. "I had all of the (Bellefonte) high school game films," recalls Williams, "and the day after I got the State College job, Bill Luther came over and got the films."

The rest is history, as they say. Williams, aided by great sports families like the Suheys, Sefters and Curleys, posted a 65-13 record over eight seasons before he took an assistant coaching job at Penn State. His boys won the unofficial state championship in 1973, and he beat Bellefonte in all five games that the two teams played during his tenure. By the way, if you want to read the entire history of State High vs. Bellefonte football, I recommend you contact Mike Williams at 814-466-7706 to get a copy of The Battle of Benner Pike, produced in 2015 by author Ralph Gray.

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So where does that leave us with a Bellefonte-State High baseball game approaching on Saturday afternoon? If you're a State High fan, please leave your paints at home. I'm sure Penn State's police wouldn't be amused by any paw prints on their campus.

I recommend that you give a rousing hand of congratulations to the Bellefonte players as they are introduced. They deserve it; their achievements last year were both heroic and historic. But then sit yourself down and cheer like crazy for your Little Lions to beat those Red Raiders by 10 runs.

That's the way it's supposed to be when State College plays Bellefonte.

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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