Search is on for The Almanac’s top athletes

Published Feb 20, 2013 at 10:46 am (Updated Feb 20, 2013 at 10:46 am)

I t happens every February. In this region, high school basketball teams embark on quests for WPIAL and PIAA championships. Wrestlers flex muscles in individual tournaments as they battle for supremacy in the state. The Pirates begin spring training. And, The Almanac kicks off its search for the athletes of the year.

In making preparations for yet another sports banquet on May 19, one cannot help but reminisce of past competitors and their triumphs.

The year was 1984. Two years into my career as sports editor and seven seasons shy of sponsoring The Almanac’s first Premier Performers event, two sisters from Seton-La Salle High School dominated the scene. Not only did they lead the Lady Rebels to a district title and a first state crown, in dramatic fashion with an overtime triumph, they helped SLS claim its first and only WPIAL softball banner that same spring. They also excelled in volleyball.

If not the best, Suzie and Kathy McConnell have been two of the premier female athletes to hail from The Almanac readership area. They continue to grace the sports pages as coaches. While Kathy, who graduated from the University of Virginia, held top positions at the University of Tulsa and Colorado before becoming an assistant with the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock last summer, Suzie excelled at Penn State, competed in two Olympic Games, claiming gold in Seoul in 1988 and bronze in Barcelona in 1992. She played and coached in the WNBA before settling into her position as head coach at Duquense University and resurrecting the women’s program into a local powerhouse.

1988 and 1992 were also very good years for area scholastic athletes.

Twenty-five years ago, Seton-La Salle upset WPIAL champion Aliquippa on the then tiny North Allegheny gymnasium floor and proceeded to capture the PIAA banner for boys’ basketball. Walt Milinski coached the club. Julius Caye and Bill Lonero graced the backcourt. While Dave Binkowski dominated the swing slot, Kevin Kerwin, who earned a scholarship to Holy Cross, played the small forward. At 7 feet tall and a junior, Kevin Salvadori afforded the Rebels a strong presence inside, starting every state playoff game. After playing at the University of North Carolina, Salvadori enjoyed a two-year stint with the Sacramento Kings in the NBA.

Bethel Park, which was in the midst of its WPIAL record-breaking streak in both boys’ and girls’ swimming, proved heroic also on the diamond. Runners-up the spring prior, the Black Hawks, managed by Ken Hodgson and his assistants Tay Meister and Jim Rider, accomplished their mission of winning the school’s only state title in baseball. The club spawned many future success stories.

Among them were first baseman Craig McRoberts and centerfielder Wade Wilson. Both were two-sport standouts for the Hawks. A football standout, too, Wilson went on to excel at Princeton and is now a success in the real estate business in the Greater New York City Area. A standout also in basketball, McRoberts, a McMurray resident now, is a shining star with Hefren-Tillotson.

As if yesterday, the positions and players are vivid. In addition to McRoberts and Wilson, there was the double-play combination of Curt White at second and Chris Buzzi at shortstop. Chris Futrick manned the hot corner and Randy Highfield the backstop. On the mound were Ron Kitchen and Chip Gaddis. A sophomore then, Brian Schmucker, the CEO of the Fortune 500 company River North in Chicago, roamed the outfield with Wilson as well as Bill Taylor in right. Mike (Thor) Hahn drew designated hitter duty and Mike Mistick proved a solid utility infielder.

As still is the case today, over at Peters Township in the year of ’88, they were winning soccer titles. Kevin Shaeffer, for whom The Almanac implemented a special service award along with Ken Waldie, defended for the Indians when they ruled the WPIAL, staking four straight titles and eventually claiming back-to-back state trophies before serving his country. The United States Naval Academy graduate earned a Purple Heart when he survived the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

Twenty-five years ago as still today, Upper St. Clair ruled the gridiron. The Panthers won their first WPIAL title under head coach Jim Render but were denied a state title, sitting out the inaugural PIAA playoffs. However, in 1989, USC repeated as district champions and won their first state title. While Wilson High School produced Kerry Collins, who went on to play professionally as a quarterback in the NFL, USC’s talent-laden club featured many standouts. Among them was Kevin Orie. One of a dying breed, a three-sport athlete, Orie competed in football, basketball and baseball. He went on to play Major League Baseball for the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins.

While USC football dominated the 1990s, the baseball team captured its only WPIAL title in 1992. Mike McHugh followed in Orie’s footsteps. He helped the Panthers win a WPIAL soccer title the autumn before the spring championship. In between, he played guard for the basketball team. MLB also drafted McHugh, who enjoyed a stint with the Texas Rangers before embarking on a career as a medical salesperson in Atlanta.

That 1992 club also boasted Sean Casey. Nicknamed the “Mayor” because of his effervescent personality, Casey enjoyed a successful MLB career. After dominating the NCAA, winning a batting title while at Richmond, Casey became an all-star first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. After a stint with the Pirates, he ended his career with the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox.

Twenty-two years have passed since The Almanac initiated its all-sports banquet and a plethora of scholastic sports standouts the caliber of the Caseys and McConells have been recognized for their achievements in athletic arena. “The Almanac’s Premier Performers sports banquet is a long-standing tradition in the area, and we are proud to continue honoring our schools’ top athletes,” said Katie Green, Almanac Editor. “We are excited to see who the next generation of stand out athletes from the area will be.”

So who are the heroes of the 2012-13 school year? And, who will be The Almanac’s male and female athletes of the year? Help decide. Fill out a nomination form today. The form is available here:

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