‘Horse’ and ‘Pony’ show riding high
By Corey J. Corbin
New Castle News
Add Robert Natale to the list.
The 5-foot-10 junior guard joined senior teammates Drew and Stew Allen, Malik Hooker, Jake McPhatter, Anthony Richards and Levar Ware in providing clutch performances at some point during the New Castle High boys basketball team’s run to the state semifinals this year.
Natale etched his name in Red Hurricane lore when he knocked down three free throws in the closing 33 seconds to help New Castle overcome a nine-point deficit and notch a 57-55 win over WPIAL Section 3-AAAA rival Hampton in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday at Bethel Park High School.
“He’s one of those guys that when his number has been called he has stepped up in a big way,” fourth-year New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “He’s played well. As the season has gone along and the playoffs came, I’ve shortened my bench a bit and he got less minutes, but he kept working. When his number was called on Saturday, he stepped up in a big way.”
COOL AS ICE
Natale tied Hooker for team-high honors with 11 points against the Talbots, while also pulling down five rebounds in the win.
With the performance, Natale earned the Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“He’s always been a calm kid,” Blundo said. “He’s very calm in his approach. He doesn’t seem to get flustered very easily. With Robert at the free-throw line, I was really confident. He’s hit big shots for us all year.”
Blundo said that the key to shooting free throws down the stretch lies in the time devoted to it in practice.
“I had complete confidence in him,” Blundo noted. Normally when you work hard at something, the repetition takes over instead of engaging your mind in the process. He’s a good free-throw shooter and is a good shooter overall. He shoots the ball the right way. He has great rotation on his shot.”
Natale calmly drained both ends of an one-and-one with 32.9 seconds remaining and New Castle clinging to a 53-49 lead. After a three-point play by Collin Luther cut the ’Canes’ advantage to three, Natale made it a two-possession game by swishing the front-end of another one-and-one. He missed the back-end for a 56-52 lead with 26.6 ticks left.
“I think I played good,” Natale said. “It’s all about helping your teammates and what you can do to make them better. I think I helped them a little bit. It was good that we got the win.”
With his performance Saturday, Natale improved to 15 of 21 from the charity stripe on the season and is 7 of 9 in seven playoff games this year.
“We practice free throws a lot and I’ve been working on mine,” Natale said. “I struggled at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been getting better. I had confidence going to the line. I was fortunate to knock them down. I was thinking about the best I could do and focusing on the rim.”
ALL IN THE FAMILY
New Castle assistant coach Bob Natale, Robert’s dad, received the nickname “Horse” during his childhood and Robert in turn has earned a “Pony” designation. Youngest Natale son, Dominick, has been tagged “Colt.”
“Someone gave me that nickname a long time ago on the playground,” the elder Natale admitted. “I’m not sure how (Robert’s nickname) evolved into that. It started and then it kept growing.”
Robert Natale doesn’t mind the “Pony” nickname.
“I guess I like it,” he said. “I’m not sure how it all got started. Everyone jokes around about the ‘Horse’ and the ‘Pony.’ It’s just something we do together.”
The Natales have more than similar monikers in common.
During his playing days, Bob Natale, a member of New Castle’s 1981-82 WPIAL championshp team, shared the program’s record for consecutive free throws made (26) with Desmond Whetzel.
Bob Natale buried his 26 straight during a playoff run during his senior year, while Whetzel earned his way into the record books during the 1998-99 season. Thomas Canal established a new benchmark of 27 straight to open the 2004-05 campaign.
“He’s really an exact replica of his dad,” Blundo said of Robert Natale. “His mechanics and the way he shoots are exactly like his father. They’re very similar in so many ways. The only difference is Robert has two WPIAL championships and his dad only has one.”
The older Natale believes his son’s shooting touch has surpassed him already.
“I’ll admit it, he’s a way better shooter than I was,” Bob Natale said.
Robert Natale isn’t worried about playing in his father’s shadow.
“I try to not let that get to me,” the junior guard said. “He was a great player when he was in high school. I just try to do my own thing and be the best basketball player I can be.”
The ’Canes feature a pair of father-son duos in the locker room with assistant coach David Richards and his son, Anthony, joining the Natales.
David Richards and Bob Natale take a back seat when it comes to basketball and their sons between November and March.
“They let me coach their sons,” Blundo said of his assistant coaches. “We think that’s the best way to go about it. When it comes to correcting little Robert or Anthony, I coach them. When you’re a father, emotion becomes involved. This way, we can take that out of the equation all together.”
Bob Natale admits to being harder on Robert than any other New Castle player.
“It’s easier to yell at him, because I can smooth it out with his mother at home,” the elder Natale said with a chuckle. “As a coach, you treat him like you do everybody else, but in reality, he’s your son. You have to balance the fine line. In the past, I could yell at him more than somebody else. You get angry and you want to take it out on somebody. He’s bore the brunt of it, because he’s my son.”
The younger Natale knows his dad is trying to get the best out of him.
“He’s always on me, but he’s just trying to help me get better,” Robert Natale said. “Everything that I don’t see myself doing wrong, he sees, which helps me out. I just have to keep working on it in practice.”
ONE MORE WEEK
New Castle will make its second-straight appearance in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals at 7:30 tonight when it ventures to Chambersburg High School for a battle with District 1’s sixth-seeded Abington.
“It’s a big game,” Robert Natale said. “We’ve had a great season, but we don’t want it to be done yet. We haven’t accomplished what we set for ourselves at the beginning of the season. We lost a lot of good players from last year, but we expected this out of ourselves. We worked hard in the offseason.
“Getting a win, making it to Hershey and hopefully getting a win there would be a great season for us.”
Bob Natale realizes just how unique the ’Canes’ run is.
“What makes it special is I grew up with coach (Bill) Humphrey, coach (David) Richards and coach Blundo,” he said. “They’re friends of mine. I coached coach (Jason) Doneluck. Coach Richards coached the seniors when they were in elementary school and I was kind of around them, too. I’ve known Drew, Stew, Anthony, Malik and Levar for about as long as I’ve known my own son. To share this with them and some of my childhood friends, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“Well, it could get better. We need two more wins. That’d be better.”
THE ROBERT NATALE FILE
TEAM: New Castle
PARENT: Bob and Cheryl Natale
KNOWN FOR: Tied teammate Malik Hooker for a team-high 11 points in a 57-55 win over WPIAL Section 3-AAAA rival Hampton in the PIAA quarterfinals Saturday. Natale knocked down 3 of 4 from the free-throw line in the final 32.9 seconds of the game and also snared five rebounds in the win.
FAVORITE PLAYER AND WHY: Kobe Bryant. “I like how he works and how he makes everyone around him better. He’s struggling now, but he’s still working.”
FAVORITE TEAM AND WHY: Chicago Bulls. “I think it goes back to Michael Jordan. I like Derrick Rose, too. He’s probably my second favorite player. I think they play the hardest out of all the NBA teams.”
FUTURE PLANS: “I want to go to college and get a good career. Hopefully, I’ll be able to live fine in the future.”