1976 - 1980
Welcome to my Hillcrest Express section of my site. I think that it is important to tell you a little bit of where our Hillcrest team came from and what we were all about. We definitely had one of the best teams in the country and we didn't have to spend a ton of money to get that recognition. It was just pure hard work and extra efforts by the players on this team that led us to such success in the late 1970's. From the very first time I stepped on the field of Big Time softball I knew then that "this was for me". As I will explain in my Who is Big Cat? page I was a very fortunate person who was in the right place at the right time. If it wasn't for my friend (Now the Mayor of Brook Park), taking me to a home run derby I don't know exactly what would have happened. That is how I got my softball career started. By being noticed by somebody. I had no idea how big softball was until

I played with Dave Neale in my first tournament in New Kensington, Pa. After that first weekend of that kind of ball, I was hooked. In 1975 you had to have excellent defensive players as well as hitters. You would have 5 home run hitters and you needed 5 singles hitters to get on base for the power hitters. It was always nicer to hit a 2 or 3 run homer than just a solo. Don't get me wrong, I like the game today and I liked the way that the game was played back then. It's just called evolution and technology. The technology today is far superior compared to the 1970's. The way they keep making these bats and balls, I bet if I wanted too I could probably play past 50 years old.

The very first year that I played with Dave, in 1975, he was coaching a team called Pesano's Restaurant. They were playing in the PD Major. Dave had another team that was sponsored by a tavern called Number One Lounge and the sponsorship fell through. So midway through the season he didn't even have a team and found a sponsorship in Pesano's. That was all he needed, because he got players from all around the city to play for him. He picked up Bobby Russell a real good outfielder from a local league in the area. He got some more players from the Lakewood league by the names of Matty Smith, Fred Jarub and added some of the players that were left from his Number One team.

 

One of the players that he kept was a fellow by the name of Fred Guger. I had seen Fred play with Dave a couple of years earlier while playing in the city tournament. So in about a week’s time he puts together a team that some people will never forget. He picks me up after the home run derby and off we go. I played 2 league games and it was time for the City of Cleveland’s ASA Metro tournament. What the heck, it was the middle of the summer and softball is the heartbeat of America... Who ever wins this tournament goes directly to the worlds. It was a funny thing back then because I was a green horn. All of the Major teams in town had really not heard of me but that was all going to change. And guess who pitched back then for our team? That's right! Dave Neale Sr.

 

The Hillcrest Express was formed by none other than Dave Neale. Dave has been involved with softball for so long that I lost track a long time ago. The first year I played with Dave he had a sponsor called Pesano's Rest. Dave decided after that year that he was going to go it alone as far as sponsorship went. The name Hillcrest came from the bar that Dave and his brother Jim owned. It was called Hillcrest Tavern. It was definitely the place to hang out in the late 70's in Cleveland. There is nothing better than playing softball with your friends and then going to your local establishment to have a couple of brews together. I mean seriously it doesn't get any better than that. When I first started playing softball with Dave that's what it was all about. That friendly confrontation at the ball field to see who's athletic ability was better than the other. I have learned over the years just what it would be like to coach your own team from all those years of experience.

In 1977 there was a number of ball players on my team that were just great athletes. There was one ball player by the name of Indian Joe. He came over from another city league in the Cleveland area..Indian Joe played back when home runs were home runs. Joe stood 6 ft. 3 in. and weighed 250 lbs. He could stuff a baketball standing below the basket and just jumping straight up. He used to use a bat we called the War Club... This bat was 34 inches long and had a 14 in barrel that weighed in at about 38 oz. The handle was so thick that he was the only person who could swing it. Indian Joe loved to just hit. I think that is a major key today for all types of softball players. You have to want to hit. If you are at the plate and you have second thoughts then you need to get out of the box right then and there let somebody hit that wants to. I remember taking batting practice with Dave the first time I hit for him. We were at one of Clevelands recreation departments. It was called Estabrook. Years ago this was a great place to hit because it had a black top infield and if it snowed you could just shovel it off or if it rained in the summer time it wasn't too long before it dried and you were taking batting practice again. I think from the first time I hit for Dave he knew that I loved to hit.

 

When we were playing back in the late 70's you could have the best team in the country for around $200,000.00. Well in 1978 Dave took our team Hillcrest out to Sacramento, California for the Mens Major ASA World Tournament. Now we had to qualify just like today. We had come in second that year in the city tournament so we had to go too the regionals which were held in Cleveland also that year. They would take the first two teams of the regionals and put them in the worlds. We got beat that year by Ohio Players in the regionals but it didn't matter, we were so happy to be going back to the worlds.

I remember Dave had a spaggetti dinner to raise money and we did some other things to raise money for our team. Dave is the kind of person that when ever he did something like this he would take his family. Chet Oblock who was one of our sponsors took his family also. So you know that it cost a few dollars to go to the world tourney. When you have dreams of having the best softball team in the land you really don't care where the money comes from as long as you are playing in the world tournament.

The tournament was played at Elk Grove softball complex in Sacramento. I remember we got beat our first game to a team out of Dallas called The Dallas Merchants. We lost that game 24-23. I had a great game and was thoroughly pumped. We ended up in the losers bracket right from the get go but I didn't care. I felt like we wouldn't lose another game. I remember going to the ball park that night to watch Howards play Ken Sanders Ford out of Augusta, Georgia. I believe Ken Sanders was ranked second and Howards was 3rd or 4th. I went to the ball park and sat in left field to watch the game. I was just sitting there watching the balls go farther and farther. Howards was hitting the crap out of the ball and handed Ken Sanders thier first lose 44 - 42. Here is a good one, the night before Ken Sanders beat a team 69 - 2 to open the tourney. The people were just awed by their power. Any way guess who we had to play the next day in the losers bracket? That's right. Ken Sanders.

Pictures

 

That game is one I will never forget because of a number of things. First thing is when we get to the ball park one of our players says hey we are playing Ken Sanders on the back field. Elk Grove was a 4 diamond complex back then. So if we are playing on field 3 and the wind is blowing straight in from center field then that must mean that on field 1 the wind is blowing dead out.

 

My teammate Mickey Buchwald, coach Billy Garrett, and bat boy Andy O congratulate me after a home run...

 

My teammates and I decided to warm up between the fields there, so while we were warming up Campbells Carpet was playing a team out of New Mexico I think, I am not really sure. I knew right from the beginning that this game was going to be a while. At the top of the second we had taken the coin toss and we were the home team. Now I had played against Ken Sanders in 1977 and they beat my team something like 38 - 6. You see there is a little lesson to be learned from this. Just because you may have spent more money on your team does not justify why you should win the tournament.. While we were playing our game it felt like the wind had picked up. So now I am thinking that hey maybe we got a shot against these guys. Remember my friend Indian Joe in the early part of this page. There was only one home run hit in this game and it was hit by Indian Joe. I mean he hit this ball on a line right out of this ball park. Let me just tell you this, it just barely made it over but that was the farthest ball hit in that game fair. The gentleman pictured above by the name of Ray Fleetwood was as good as anybody. He tried twice in the game to hit line shot base hits up the middle and twice I cheated on him and snag the ball by second and stepped on 2nd base and threw to first for the double-play. Not once but twice!

This is Sidney Cooper from Ken Sanders Ford looking to stretch this base hit into a double. Tim Lombardy is lloking on making sure that Sidney touches 1st base.

 

Back to the crucial part of the game. I think it was in the third inning when Ken Sanders walks up to the home plate umpire and asks for time. So his team is getting ready to hit. My team is taking the field and I hear Dave say in a sharp tone. Hey ump? what the hell is going on? The umpire calls Dave to come to home plate. When he gets there the ump says that Mr. Sanders would like to stop the ball game right here and now. He said he wants to finish the game over on the other field where the wind is blowing out. Where Campbells is getting ready to set a national record for most runs in a game. Now here is the best part. He says that he spends well over $200,000.00 on his softball team every year and that he bet we did not spend that much. He says it again louder this time. I WANT THIS GAME STOPPED RIGHT NOW. Well it was kind of hard for Dave not to laugh or get mad. Dave just said "what are you ? Nuts! Mr. Sanders says that I will bet that Dave didn't spend $20,000.00 on his ball club.

 

I really felt that Ken actually thought that since he spent so much money on his team that he could pick what field he wanted to play on. I remember Craig Elliott saying that's ok, lets stay here because I am fixin to hit that darn ball out of here next time up.

Ken was right when he said that Dave did not spend on his team as much as he had. I guess he thought he could just buy himself a national championship. Mr. Sanders felt that since he spent so much on his team he gets to basically make the rules up as we go. . I think we all know that it just doesn't work that way. As I glanced over to the other field I noticed that Campbells was really killing the ball. I knew that all you had to do was get it up with some authority over there and you would probably hit it out. As I was daydreaming thinking about hitting on that field I am brought back to my senses when I hear the umpire hollar lets play ball. So my team takes their positions and we resume the game. At the time of the stoppage of the game the score was 3 -2 with my team leading. I remember hitting a ball as good as any ball I had hit in a while and they caught it at the fence.

Now in the top of the sixth the Cranker, Craig Elliott comes to the plate with two guys on. The first pitch that we throw to him he hit this ball so hard and so quick that there was no doubt about it going out of the ball park, the question was is it going to stay fair. I said you always can use some luck. The ball went foul! All of a sudden I look up and the ump is throwing in a new ball. My whole team looked as if Oh No!. The next pitch that we throw to him he hits this ball so high that I think my right center fielder Rick Citino was getting dizzy trying to catch this ball. If the wind was not blowing in that ball might not have ever been found. So Ricky catches the ball and we hold on to win the game 3 -2 and knock out the number 2 team in the country. I remember when one of the softball magazines came out they had our team in the top 25 in the country so it was kind of special then to beat a team like that.

That was one of the most exciting games I was ever in. We had a break now to go back to the hotel room and regroup. We found out before we went back that we had to play the next morning at 8:00 am. We were scheduled to play a team called Lou Anna Foods out of Louisiana that first game on Saturday morning. On Friday night our team was hanging around the hotel having some fun when guess who shows up. Mighty Joe Young. Thats right the Mighty one. And guess who he plays for. You guessed it, Lou Anna foods. So a couple of the guys on our team that didn't play much decided to buy Joe drinks until the bar closed. Needless to say the next morning Joe is not in all that good of shape. We ended up beating Lou Anna Foods something like 42 to 27. All Joe did was go 0-6. So you see how you can win some ball games. Ha! Ha!..

With that victory in the morning it put our spirits sky high and we continued to roll though the losers bracket. Our next opponent was Bunca Frye out of Michigan. We had been having trouble with them all year but with a little luck we beat them when it counted the most. The next game we play is against Steele's out of Lima, Ohio. Little did I know then what I would do later on down the road with that team. It was a hard fought battle but in the end we beat them pretty soundly. Steele's was ranked 5th in the world so here was another big upset for the little team out of Cleveland, Ohio. Now after we have beaten Steele's , Ken Sanders and Bunca who do you think we play next. Nelson's Painting Service.

 

Indian Joe Terebenic
Tommy Gahnn
Johnny Neale
Bob Leshyn
Chris Varndell
Bobby Hedgedus
Steve Blanchette
Tim Lombardy
Ricky Citino
Mike Tedescoe
Fred Guger & Lou Rinella
Biaggio Schellaro
Dennis Puening
David Neale Jr.
Mark "Downtown" Brown
Dave "VMan" Vehonsky

 

All R.T. Nelson did in 1978 was put together a team that you would think was a Pro football team. They were huge! Now here is all these sponsors with all this money. Before we can play Nelson's team, he (R.T. Nelson) actually protested that our base coaches were not dress with matching coaches outfits. Another one of those you got to be kidding me. First a sponsor wants the fields moved and now R.T. wants to protest. So Dave tells R.T. and the umps you do what you got to do. So they let us play the game. Were in the game for the first couple of innings but then the flood gates opened and our wave of success had reached its end. Oh yeah I almost forgot this is the place where Bruce Meade hit a ball at my short stop and he actually moved to the side and didn't even try to catch it. It was a low line drive about 6 inches off the ground from home plate to the grass. If it would have hit you in the ankle it might of broke your leg. My hat goes off to Bruce on that one...

Our dream season finally comes to an end and we get back on the plane and go back home to Ohio.What do you think Dave did over the winter. That's right, he recruited some more ball players. Our Hillcrest Tavern team was started in 1976 and 1980 was our last year under that sponsorship.. Below is a photo of our team winning the prestigous Stroh's tournament in Cleveland in 1979... That was a big tourney for me because I took home all the hardware. But that is not what was the most important thing to me. It was the fact that we won. I believe we won 5 games on that Sunday in 79. I felt good because I knew that I had what it took to be that leader and to be that dominating factor. All that did was encourage me more to be the best that I possibly could be.. So after the tournament the first thing I did was take my batting practice...

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Standing Back Row:Fred Guger, Tommy Gahn, Mark Brown, Rocky Neale, Mickey Buchwald,John Neale, Tim Lombardy,Steve Blanchette, Dave Neale Sr. Charles Bradbury.
Front Row: Biaggio Schellarro, Rick Citino, Dennis Puening, Dave Vehonsky, Bob Leshyn, Mike Macenko, Joe Dyken
Best Softball Fan: Tom Aldridge, Bat Boy Andy Okulovich

 

 



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