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Return to athletic glory of years past does wonders for Patterson High School


There was a time, back in the '40s and '50s, when Patterson represented the best in Baltimore high school sports.

The school -- then Patterson Park High, situated next to the park, now called simply Patterson, further east on Kane Street, just off Eastern Avenue -- was symbolized by a bald, Pennsylvania-reared coach named Irv Biasi who had been a star athlete at Western Maryland College.

Biasi's Patterson athletes were extraordinary -- Dick Bielski, Carl Runk, Dick Travagline, Ed Listopad, Bernie Dudley, Leo Szamski, Mel Baldwin, Bob Pivec. The list is long.

But the hard-nosed little coach was the driving force behind the school's championships.

Irv used to say Patterson won because he worked harder than other coaches. Some -- including the superintendent of city schools -- felt Biasi and his teams worked too hard.

At times when practice was prohibited, Biasi's teams worked out on the school roof. Always there was a lookout posted in case any school officials came snooping around.

One day the superintendent summoned Biasi to 25th Street and reprimanded him for holding illegal workouts.

"I'm sorry, it won't happen again," said Biasi. "But would you mind telling me how you found out we were on the roof?"

"Not at all," said the superintendent. "I was flying to a conference out of town, and when we took off at Friendship Airport and flew over Patterson . . . "

Memories of that era were revived this fall at Patterson, where the football team reached the semifinals of the state championship tournament last weekend with an 11-0 record.

Included in the large crowd at Patterson for the game against North County were many former Clippers stars, including Runk, Leo Wisniewski and Lou Karpouzie.

"First Patterson game I've been to in 40 years," said Willie Metzger.

With less than three minutes remaining, Patterson was ahead 15-10. It looked as if the team would move on to tomorrow night's Class 4A title game against Largo at Annapolis.

At that point a human streak of lightning named Topper Ellisreturned a kickoff 90 yards for the game-winning touchdown for North County, which now will face Largo tomorrow night in Annapolis for the state championship.

Ellis' run ended the year for the Baltimore team, but by no means did it ruin what has been a season of which to be proud at Patterson.

Indeed, the 11-1 season and coming within a whisker of playing for the state championship have done wonders for the school.

"It couldn't have come at a better time," says Patterson athletic director Roger Wrenn, who has been the varsity football and baseball coach for 21 years.

"Last year, whenever I saw our school mentioned in the newspaper, I thought our prefix was 'troubled.' It was always 'troubled Patterson High'."

Trouble is no stranger at any large urban high school, but at Patterson violence and misbehavior were so out of hand that the state was threatening to take over the school. The plan would have transferred the entire staff, including Wrenn.

In the end, about half the staff remained. It's a blessing for the school that Wrenn was one of those, and not only because his team won 11 games.

"Roger is outstanding," says Patterson's first-year principal, Bonnie S. Erickson, a no-nonsense 30-year veteran of the Baltimore public school system. She remained on the sideline to the bitter end Saturday.

"Some of the North County parents told me," Erickson says, "they were afraid to send their children to our school to see the game, they'd read and heard so much about the violence at our school.

"But after the game they praised us for the behavior of our students and fans."

What did the successful football season do for Patterson?

"It provided an opportunity for our students to feel a sense of pride in our school," Erickson says. "It was a rallying point for everyone.

"I used our football players as role models. Whenever I spoke to our students, I praised the football players for their work ethic and character on and off the field. I told our students the football team was successful because the players studied and practiced hard and executed, and that's what all students should do."

No one is more painfully aware of Patterson's past troubles and its image than Roger Wrenn. Nor does anyone know the school's kids better.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of great kids here," he says proudly.

He cited, for openers, his talented, 6 foot 2 1/2 , 190-pound quarterback, Willie McGuirk, who is being recruited by Syracuse and many other top football colleges (Willie leans toward North Carolina at this point), and Joe Mechlinski, linebacker, honor student, senior class president. Mechlinski hopes to enter Johns Hopkins next fall.

After Patterson lost last week, Wrenn gathered his players around him. They were on one knee as the coach spoke.

"I'm proud of all of you," Wrenn said. "I'm proud of the way you played when we won, and I'm proud of the way you conducted yourselves today when we lost."

"Did you hear that?" asked Bob Moskowitz, a Pattersonn English teacher. "Roger praised his kids for their sportsmanship and conduct. When you think about it, that's more important than winning a game."

Just inside the front door at Patterson is a bulletin board with a poster that says: "It's A New Day! Patterson is on its way."

It is, and Roger Wrenn and his football team contributed hugely to that.

No matter which schools win state championships, none will have accomplished more than Patterson this autumn.

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