Remembering Annarella’s part in Warren merger

WARREN — In a story that seemed to be ripped straight from a movie, two rival high schools were brought together as one and defied the odds to achieve the ultimate goal — to win a state title.

Both Warren G. Harding and Western Reserve had historic programs, so the task of uniting the two programs was daunting.

The man responsible for bringing these two programs together on the field was Phil Annarella, who coached Western Reserve for nine seasons before being named to lead the combined team.

The longtime coach died recently. He was 70 years old and coaching at Austintown Fitch, but his legend in Warren never faded.

“That was the first year of consolidation,” current Harding coach Steve Arnold said. “He had to bring a community together. Two different high schools, traditions, colors, booster clubs, players, all that. He had to coordinate more than just the varsity staff. Phil is kind of the architect of bringing everyone together.”

Gary Aceto, who was a left tackle for the Panthers, was particularly worried about his playing time with the Raiders bringing over Korey Stringer and LeShun Daniels, who would both go on to Ohio State University for their collegiate careers.

“The first time I met Phil, he just looked at me and said something to the effect of, ‘I see what kind of football player you are, just show up,’ “ Aceto said. “I showed up, he put me on defense, and I was the defensive tackle in the first game.”

Many of the East Side players were worried about bringing over the Western Reserve coach, due to the potential of favoritism for his own guys. Annarella instantly alleviated their concerns.

“A lot of us East Side guys were worried about having a West Side coach,” Aceto said. “We were all saying how we wouldn’t get to play, and he assured us that we would and the ones we thought should, did. There wasn’t a guy who should’ve played but didn’t.”

The first day as a united team, still without a proper name, Annarella began to bridge the gap.

“The first day we came together he had shirts for us that said ‘Warren Central Trojans’, which they were thinking of naming us,” Aceto said. “He told us that we were brothers and there’s no more of this and no more of that and we just bought into it.”

Even though there wasn’t favoritism and the team had bought in to Annarella’s philosophy, that doesn’t mean the transition was all sunshine and rainbows. Once those problems were sorted out, the team got closer than ever.

“There was definitely tension, but the way they handled it was to let us handle it,” Aceto said. “There were three or four fights early, but the next thing you know we’re talking to the paper about who beat Reserve and that we want to beat them. It was Panther guys saying it. We didn’t even play those teams, but we just came together that much.”

Annarella handled a delicate situation just right and found a way to balance it fairly. He composed a staff of both Raider and Panther coaches, showing the players that they’re all in this together.

Arnold joked that what Annarella did as a coach that season made his job coaching the Raiders all these years later far more difficult.

“Going 14-0 and winning the state championship was crucial to the community,” Arnold said. “I jokingly say sometimes that that was the worst thing he could’ve done was to win a state championship in the first year after consolidation. It was great, but that was a tough act to follow.”

While the football program was the most prominent group going through this process, it affected the school itself, along with the teachers, marching band, and all the other sports the school offered.

“Those were difficult times, not only for football but for everything else,” Pat Guliano, athletic director at the time, told the Tribune Chronicle in 2015. “The most visible part of the whole process was the football team, whether you liked it or not.”

Thinking back almost 30 years, it’s obvious that the consolidated Harding would do what they did. Two football powerhouses uniting as one super team? Of course they would succeed.

Back then, the outlook wasn’t as high. Except for Aceto, who knew the team was destined for greatness from the get-go. As the season started, the team as a whole began to feel it as well.

“I tell people all the time that the day we consolidated, I knew we would win,” Aceto said. “Every game we went into we knew we were going to win, there was no doubt. Even though we got close in a lot of games, we just knew we would win. No matter what, you could feel it.”

Annarella was still surprised at how the team accomplished what they did 25 years after the win over Cincinnati Princeton.

“As I look back, I don’t know how we did what we did,” Annarella told the Tribune back in 2015. “There were so many committees I served on. I don’t think I was ever home. Committees over the colors, the mascot, committees in general about how to approach the community with this new one school.”

Whether their title was luck, or the start of what could have been something more, Annarella credited the players most of all, saying the only obstacle in their way was what was being said outside of the locker room.

“I think it was a little bit of everything,” he said. “The good Lord looking down on us, then great players — the kids bought into everything we talked about. They wanted to win. The only thing we had to overcome was what they were hearing outside of the locker room. The players handled it extremely well, and the guys I coached with, I can never give enough credit for what they did. It fell into place.”

Guliano and Annarella found themselves working together on multiple stops throughout their respective journeys. The two found themselves back with each other time and time again.

It’s part of what made Annarella’s passing so hard to to endure.

“I am saddened about the passing of Phil,” Guliano said. “In the 48 years I knew him, I worked with him at many different venues; on the road scouting in the early years, then at Warren, Niles and Fitch. I will really miss him.”

Calling hours for Annarella is Friday from 2 to 8 p.m., in the Austintown Fitch High School Auditorium. Funeral service is Saturday at 10 a.m., at St. Stevens Church in Niles.

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