Throwback Thursday: The 1977 Bensalem Fighting Owls
Bensalem Township abuts the City of Philadelphia in the river Northeast area. The Owls began football in 1930 as an independent squad, going 1-4-1 (a). They were in the old Lower Bucks County league (LBCL) for 1935 through 1944; their most successful season was 1936 when they were 5-0 in the league and 6-2 overall. In those early days, all league teams did not play each other and if there was a league champion, the Owls must have won it. The WW II year of 1945 and first post-WW II year of 1946, the Owls were independent again.
The LBCL was either begun anew or revived in 1947 as four teams – Bensalem, Bristol, Morrisville, and Langhorne-Middletown (Neshaminy to be). In 1948 the Bensalem Owls hit their first and only undefeated season in history through 2013 at 8-0-2. They tied for the league title with Bristol at 2-0-1 apiece. They titled again in 1950 at 5-1 league in a 5-3-1 season. I believe that Marlon Van Horn was the Head Coach through this era.
The next high point for the Owls was in 1953 when they won 9 games for the first time, and tied for the LBCL title with Neshaminy at 6-1 league. They beat Neshaminy 7-6 in 1953, but lost to Pennsbury making the title tie.
When tremendous lower Bucks County growth due to the Fairless Steel plant caused a split of the LBCL into big school and small school divisions in 1961, the Owls originally went into the “small” school division where they titled in 1962, 1963, 1964, and 1965.
Returning to the “big school” division of the LBCL in 1968, it seems the fortunes of the Owls flew south permanently. The Owls had played nearly .500 ball in the 1940s (discounting ties) at 39-38-10, in the 1950s at 46-47-5, and again in the 1960s at 49-50-2. But the 1970’s began the unkind Owl era with the 1970s producing a record of 39-68-1. The Owls never recovered through the 1980s, ‘90s, nor 2000s either. Placement in the Suburban One league in various divisions beginning in 1982 added further power football schools to the Owls’ schedules.
As an outsider of the Bensalem School District I cannot assess any reasons a more successful football program has not occurred. The school district is not undersized at the 26th largest school in Pennsylvania for the new enrollment PIAA schedules. But certainly in a league with power football schools such as Neshaminy and Pennsbury and Central Bucks West is an issue. My last count was through 2002, and versus Neshaminy the Owls were 22-45-1; versus Pennsbury 21-44-4; and Versus CBW 6-28-1. The Owls also struggled with CB East at 3-16.
The Owls were seldom without sufficient numbers, and produced some fine players over the years as most schools do. They often played power schools tough and were not the worst beaten foe on a power school schedule each year. Examples – two consecutive ties with Pennsbury (22-22 1989) (16-16 1990); 6-9 loss in 1999; losses of 7-10 and 12-13 to CB West; and many other such examples. Many seasons I would say the Owls had to be the “best” 3-7 or 4-6 or some such record team around. So many times they seemed just a dropped pass or missed tackle away from a victory.
But in 1977 the Bensalem Owls put together a supreme season. The coach was Bob Hart for the Owls in 1977. Bob was a Morrisville graduate and I knew him well. He had matriculated at Penn State under Rip Engle until an injury forced him out of football. Bob did not coach in 1978, and I do not know if this was a one-season only or not. He had also been an assistant coach at Neshaminy.
The Owls were coming off of a typical Owl tour in 1976 at 4-6. A nemesis, CB East was the opener, but this year the Owls got by the Patriots 13-12 at home. Next was another non-league encounter with then Monsignor Bonner also at home. The Owls won that one 15-7. Remaining in the confines of the bowl stadium at Bensalem that opened in 1973, the Owls dispatched Mastbaum 35-0. Next was Neshaminy Langhorne at home.
From 1975 through 1982 there were two Neshaminy High Schools, Langhorne the original, and a new Neshaminy Maple Point. Looking at records of each Neshaminy school as a barometer, the split definitely hurt the football program at both schools, thinning the talent. Neither Neshaminy school had super seasons the entire 8 years of the split. But the original Langhorne was still “Neshaminy” as an opponent for the Owls. The Skins had lost their opener to Bishop Egan 12-7, beat Abington 14-0, and lost to Frankford 26-7. They were 1-2 while the Owls were 3-0 entering the game.
I had seen neither team this season yet and didn’t see this match, but the Skins exploded on the Owls 42-14, an early season upset by records in the first league game for both teams. Those 42 points were exceptional, as the Owls gave up only one more point, 43 in all of their other 10 games.
Next up for the Owls was their first away game, a non-league affair at Trenton (NJ) Central. The Owls recorded their second shutout of the season, 14-0. Back home for Delhaas, the stiff Owl defense again netted a goose egg 20-0. Next was away at Council Rock that was then one school and the one that became CR North in 2002. I took this one in and the Owls recorded their third consecutive shutout and fourth of the season 13-0.
A visit to Falcon Field was next and I also took in this one. In a battle of stiff defenses, the Owls came away victorious 10-3. Then the Owls returned home to entertain Woodrow Wilson. They held the Golden Rams to a single score and won 17-7. And then it was to the Neshaminy field for the last regular season game with Neshaminy Maple Point which the Owls won 14-7.
The Owls had finished a 9-1 season, but the single loss to Neshaminy Langhorne had made a league lead co-tie with the Skins at 5-1 each. The Skins had lost to sister school Maple Point 7-0. A playoff for the league title was arranged for a November night at Woodrow Wilson stadium.
Extra seats had been added to an already big stadium at Wilson, the only one with permanent end zone bleachers in addition to the side bleachers in lower Bucks County. I arrived later than my normal practice, found a seat and it was brutally cold and windy. We were so cold that I only stayed for the first half, and I remember only that it was a hard-hitting struggle; both teams were really putting it all out and the sounds of pads and helmets were evident even in the big crowd. In the end the Owls revenged their earlier setback to the Skins 12-7 and won the 1977 LBCL Championship.
I believe a ‘Lake’ was a standout on this Owls squad, possibly George Lake, from a football-playing Lake family over some years in Bensalem. And John Kreider made 2nd team AP All-state at defensive end. Bob Hart soon became Athletic Director at Bensalem.
Evident was something special with the chemistry for the 1977 Owls. For a championship 10-1 team the offense averaged only 16.1 points per game. That was 7th of the 16 teams I tracked that season. Even the defense was not first, but was second at 7.7 ppg to Pennsbury’s 7.4 ppg. The average margin of victory was but 8.4 points per game. Special was the defense and desire of this team. They did enough to win every game but one all year.
The next season I went to Bensalem for a non-league game with Bishop Egan. The Owls were 0-2 coming in and I sat in the stands near enough to hear one of their cheerleaders say to her fellow cheerleader, “Last year we were league champions, and this year in my senior season we’re screwing it up!” I remember that 37 years later as if it were yesterday. The cheerleader’s remark was both poignant and prophetic as the 1978 Owls went 0-11.
(a) Many historical stats are courtesy of the fine Don Black high school football history publications or his fine website ePASports.com.
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