The Cecil School District didn't have a wrestling team when Don Sandala attended high school in the late 1940s, but that didn't keep him from the sport that has become such a big part of his life.
"We didn't have a wrestling team, but Canonsburg High School did have one," said Sandala, who grew up in the small town of Muse, near Cecil and is now part of the the Canon?McMillan School District. "They had the best program in the state, so I often went to watch their matches."
Sandala's interest in wrestling continued after graduating from Cecil in 1950 when he attended the University of Pittsburgh. "I didn't wrestle myself, but I did go to all of Pitt's matches," said Sandala. "I loved watching Joe Solomon, Rocky Roman and the Perry brothers."
Sandala's college career was cut short by the Korean War, but his military service didn't require deployment overseas. "After getting out of the service, I got a good job at Westinghouse and moved to Plum in 1962," said Sandala, who spent 35 years working at Westinghouse. "Plum had just started a wrestling program. They didn't have a junior high or midget team. They didn't even have a regulation-size mat."
That's when Sandala decided to lobby the school district to institute a junior program.
"I started going to all the school board meetings and talked to them about starting a Don Sandala youth program," said Sandala. "That's how the Plum Junior Wrestling Association began." Sandala teamed up with Buzz Shipman and started the program.
"Our first year was either 1968 or 1969," said Sandala, 71. "We had 10 boys from the neighborhood on that first team. We taught them the basic moves, then took them to the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling Championships. Some of the kids even won a few matches."
Sandala and Shipman were joined by Bob Cramer and Bruce Wright a year later and the foursome became the first board of directors of the Plum Junior Wrestling Program.
"We eventually incorporated and bought the kids T-shirts. In 1971, the district agreed to add a junior high program. Having a good feeder system is the key to having a successful wrestling program."
After competing as an independent program for a few years, the Plum Junior Wrestling Program joined the Keystone Wrestling League.
"We practiced two or three times a week at Plum Junior High and O'Block Junior High, and wrestled our matches at either O'Block or at the high school," said Sandala. "The newer kids would practice only twice a week, while the more experienced kids would practice three times a week:"
That was the beginning of what would become a 30-plus year involvement with the Plum Junior Wrestling Program, which included 10 years as Area 7 Chairman of the Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling..
"Plum has had one of the best wrestling programs in the WPIAL and Don Sandala has played a huge role in its success," said Bruce Closson, whose son Bill was a four-year starter at Plum from 1990-93.
Closson feels the key to Sandala's success is his low-key approach to winning.
"The goal of our program was to provide the kids a place to wrestle, teach them the basics and let them have fun," said Sandala. "I never pushed the aspect of winning. There's plenty of time for that when they get to high school: "
Plum Junior Wrestling Program alumni have won seven WPIAL titles and four PIAA titles. Two went on to become All-Americans in college ? Steve Cassidy and Bill Closson.
"One of my biggest joys were Saturday tournaments," said Sandala. "We would all crowd into my van and travel all over the state for tournaments."
Another great joy for Sandala was watching his three sons wrestle for Plum. "I remember my first year at the PIAA Tournament," said Sandala. "It was 1976 and my son Gary qualified by placing fourth in the WPIAL. They held the state tournament at Penn State's Rec Hall at the time."
For his dedication to the
sport of wrestling, Sandala has been named the 2004 Dr. Kurt J. Nellis Memorial
"I've known the Nellis family for well over 30 years," said Sandala. "I followed the brothers throughout their wrestling careers. It's a real honor to be recognized for an award that has the Nellis name associated with it.
"I had no idea this
was coming. To be honored for something that I really love makes it even more
Sandala's community service has also branched out to two other sports. He helped organize Plum's midget football program and served as president for four years. He also coached youth baseball for 10 years.
Sandala still lives in Plum with his wife Jackie, and has three sons: Don Jr., Gary and Mark.