MERCER COUNTY —
“Penn State Proud” has been used as a recruiting slogan, but for head football coach Bill O’Brien it’s a way of life.
O’Brien orchestrated an 8-win season for the 2012 Nittany Lions, including a season-ending overtime win over Big Ten Conference champion Wisconsin. However the intense taskmaster related, “I think at the end of the day, it was a good year for Penn State. But one thing you learn in coaching,” O’Brien admonished, “is that you can’t rest on your laurels. That year’s over, and we moved on — really, as soon as the Wisconsin game was over — we started thinking about 2013, and that’s basically where we’re headed now.”
The 2012 Bear Bryant Coach of the Year Award winner, O’Brien served as guest speaker at the annual Penn State-Shenango Friends of Penn State dinner on Wednesday. A native of the Boston suburb of Andover, Mass., the intense O’Brien was polite, but smiled little during a 15-minute meeting with the media in Sharon Hall on PSU-Shenango’s campus.
After making a pair of Super Bowl appearances with the NFL’s New England Patriots, O’Brien became Penn State University’s 15th head football coach on Jan. 6, 2012. Having had a late start on the recruiting trail and having lost numerous scholarship players in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal, the 2012 Nittany Lions lost back-to-back games to commence the campaign.
However a subsequent practice on an emotional Monday motivated his minions toward a 34-7 victory over the United States Naval Academy. That propelled PSU to 8 wins in its final 10 games.
“It was definitely an enjoyable season, especially with this being my first as a head football coach,” O’Brien acknowledged. “Being around the players, the coaches, the administration — just really fantastic people at Penn State. And that’s saying a lot, because I was an assistant coach on two Super Bowl teams, and those were really enjoyable years, too — even though we didn’t win.
“But (2012) was a very special year, mostly because of the kids, the players, and how hard they worked,” O’Brien continued, “the passion that they had, the commitment (31 seniors) that they made to it, so it was a pretty neat year.
“There were a few gratifying moments,” O’Brien reflected. “These are young guys playing a contact sport, a tough sport, and they’d been through a lot. We came to practice that Monday after the Virginia game (a 16-14 loss), and we had a really good, crisp practice. That was a really gratifying moment for me as a coach.
“Then the other moment,” he continued, “had to be the locker room after the Wisconsin game. That was just a fantastic scene! And to be a part of that, especially with those kids — the commitment they had made to the university, to us, the commitment that they made to each other — to see them come out on the winning end of that game was just pretty neat.”
Regarding 2013, O’Brien offered an assessment of his recently signed class of recruits:
“We feel really good about the student-athletes we’ve recruited,” he began, relating, “We’re in a situation (owing to NCAA sanctions) where we can’t sign as many guys as we’d like to sign, but we really feel good about the quality of the guys that we’ve brought in here. We think we’ve gotten some high-character guys, we think we’ve gotten some good football players that come from good families. We feel good about the job we did in Pennsylvania; we feel we need to do an even better job in the future. ... We have nine coaches in Pennsylvania, so we have coaches who have (geographical recruiting) areas.
“But especially as it relates to Ohio, we have to do a better job in Ohio,” O’Brien acknowledged. “There are good players in Ohio that have interest in Penn State. But just overall, as a staff led by me, we have to do a better job there. But we’ll always recruit this area and the Youngstown area has been good to us (Cardinal Mooney High product Michael Zordich, a senior fullback, served as a 2012 captain). But we have to continue to do a better job in this area, recruiting it.
“Recruting’s never been easy,” O’Brien admitted. “Recruting’s about a fit: Does the student-athlete feel like he fits in at the school that’s recruiting him? Does the student-athlete feel good about the relationship? Is is a trusting relationship? What makes recruiting harder is ... some of these new rules (text-messaging, telephoning, visiting recruits). Hopefully we get some of these new rules tabled — there’s, like, three of four of them that need to be tabled and talked about a lot longer than they have been.
“The relationships and whether or not a guy fits, that’s the fun part of recruiting,” he added.
O’Brien also praised Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delaney — “a forward-thinking man,” — specifically for his role in expanding the circuit, which soon will include Maryland and Rutgers.
Although 20 years into his coaching career, arguably, O’Brien’s enduring legacy may be that as the man who succeeded legendary Joe Paterno as Penn State University’s head football coach. Ironically, they shared the same alma mater, Brown University.
“I actually spoke to Coach Paterno one time,” O’Brien began, “and that was about 10 days before he passed away. And I’m glad I had the opportunity to at least do that. I wish that I’d had the opportunity to sit down and talk with him, obviously, but I had the opportunity to speak with him on the phone. ... that was a private conversation between he and I, and I’ll just keep it at that.
“But it was a productive conversation. I wouldn’t say it was an emotional conversation, but it was productive, and ... I’m glad I had a chance to speak with him,” O’Brien related.
“Funny story,” he related. “When I was a senior at Brown, (Paterno) came to Brown and spoke to the whole athletic department. And then the football players (O’Brien was a linebacker/defensive end), the seniors that year, we got to ... meet with him and talk to him a little bit. That was really neat, just as a 21-year-old, that was pretty cool.
“But ... we’re doing things at Penn State that, I believe, he would be proud of,” O’Brien continued. “We’re recruiting good kids, we’re putting a huge emphasis on academics, because it’s a fantastic school, we care about the school, we care about the guys we coach.
“I (didn’t) know Joe Paterno personally, but I believe he’d be proud of that. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the body of work, the wins, combined with graduating that high percentage of players over time, will never be matched,” O’Brien concluded.
MERCER COUNTY —
Breese defends heavyweight title at PIAA Championships
HERSHEY, Pa. — Move over Rod Wright!
Lakeview senior heavyweight star Sam Breese had a goal coming into the PIAA State Class AA Wrestling Championships this weekend at Hershey Giant Center — besides winning a second state crown, that is.
WM knocks off Neshannock in PIAA playoffs
SLIPPERY ROCK — The notion of Trey Staunch sneaking up on opposing teams is laughable. At 6-foot-3 and approximately 225 pounds, the stout Staunch is not sneaking up on anyone.
However after posting a game-high 31-point, 18-rebound performance in West Middlesex High basketball team’s 76-66 PIAA Class AA playoffs opening-round win over Neshannock Saturday night, Staunch said opponents may have been overlooking the Big Reds.
Hickory girls 26-0, oust Johnstown
SLIPPERY ROCK — At Morrow Field House Saturday evening, the Hickory Lady Hornets kept the perfect season alive with a 63-37 state playoff first round win over the Greater Johnstown Trojans from District 6.
“It feels great to get the win (Saturday),” said veterans Hickory coach Jeanette Whitehead. “We’ve been at this place over the last few years and we’ve been sent home in the first round so it was a huge win for us. I’m very proud of our team effort."
KC girls roll past California in PIAA playoffs
SLIPPERY ROCK — Kennedy Catholic High girls’ basketball team was in the ’hood Saturday afternoon.
Led by senior Taylor Hood, the Lady Golden Eagles eased past California, 53-34, in the opening round of the PIAA Class A playoffs.
Lakeview's Breese to defend PIAA title
HERSHEY, Pa. — If you are Major League Baseball player, a .333 batting average is great. But in wrestling at the state tournament — not so much!
Out of the dozen wrestlers that Mercer County sent to Hershey for the PIAA State Class AA Wrestling Championships, only four (.333) will reach the medal stand today — led by Lakeview senior Sam Breese who shoots for a second straight gold medal.
Farrell edges Montour, 60-57, in PIAA opener
Montour High boys’ basketball coach Adam Kaufman lamented another season-ending setback. However there are several hundred coaches across the Commonwealth who envy his program’s recent success and would trade places with him in a heartbeat.
But during Friday night’s PIAA Class AAA playoff opener, Kaufman & Co. could not overcome those streaky Steelers ... those survivin’ Steelers.
“ ... Hey, survive and move on,” summarized Steelers’ skipper Roland Shannonhouse following Farrell’s 60-57 win at Sharon High.
GCC ousts Mercer in 1st round of PIAAs
The Mercer Lady Mustangs were outscored 16-4 in the final quarter of the first round of the state playoffs by the Greensburg Central Catholic Centurions, ending their season Friday night 56-31 at Sharon High School.
Senior Lexie Arkwright had a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double performance for the Lady M’s. She also snagged three steals. Adelyn Cook and Haylie Glass each added 4 points for Mercer.
5 area matmen to quarterfinals in Hershey
HERSHEY — Mercer County matmen had mixed results on the opening day of action in the PIAA State Class AA Wrestling Championships at the Giant Center.
Only 5 of the county’s dozen entries — led by defending state champ Sam Breese of Lakeview (285) — won their preliminary matches to move into the tournament quarterfinals which begin at 9 a.m. today. However the other 7 lost their first matches, although 3 are still alive in the consolations heading into this morning’s action.
Coach Chad Mild's Big Reds are road warriors
West Middlesex High boys basketball team did not play its first home game until after the first of the year, but competing at New Castle, Farrell and Youngstown’s Covelli Centre has served it well.
Witness West Middlesex’s 55-54 win over Fairview in last weekend’s District 10 Class AA championship game — at Edinboro University’s McComb Field House.
Boys PIAA basketball preview boxes
Who: Farrell (22-3) vs. Montour (16-8).
What: Opening round.
When: 7:30 p.m. today.
Where: Sharon High’s Tiger Gymnasium.
Hickory, Mercer, KC girls PIAA playoff boxes
Who: Hickory (25-0) vs. Greater Johnstown (11-14).
What: PIAA Playoffs, 1st round.
When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Slippery Rock University.
Shannonhouse's Steelers set for statewide stage
With the approaching spring, a young man’s fancy turns to ... what else? The PIAA playoffs. And when Shenango Valley scholastic basketball aficionados think of the postseason they think of Farrell.
Recently at E.J. McCluskey Gymnasium, the banners above were blowing in the breeze — ’52 ... ’54 ... ’56 ... ’59 ... ’60 ... ’69 ... ’72 — swaying as sprinting players created a vacuum of air rising from the floor. Melodramatic maybe, but there’s a feeling at Farrell that harkens back to the heyday when playoff success was a rite of passage.
Breese eyes repeat at state mat tourney
There is no doubt that winning a state championship in wrestling is a difficult thing to do. Winning two is even tougher.
“There’s a target on your chest,” pointed out Lakeview High coach Tom Tingley in preseason this year, referring to his star wrestler Sam Breese who won a state heavyweight crown as a junior last year.
Obviously that target hasn’t bothered the Sailors big man who is a perfect 32-0 this season as he attempts to become only the 12th Mercer County matman to win multiple titles.
WRESTLING NOTEBOOK: It's a young group of county matmen headed to state
THERE’S definitely a youth movement in Mercer County wrestling as demonstrated by the group of 11 matmen who are advancing to the PIAA State Class AA Championships on Thursday.
Eight of the locals are underclassmen. The only seniors are Lakeview’s Sam Breese (285), Reynolds’ Levi Stoyer (145) and Jamestown’s Mohamed Messai (182).
Breese and Stoyer are the only returning state place-winners. Breese, who has verbally committed to Kent State University to wrestle next season, won the heavyweight class and is seeking a second gold medal. Stoyer placed 7th at 145 and wants to climb much higher on the medals stand.
Kennedy boys forfeit win, are out of playoffs
The PIAA basketball playoffs do not begin until Friday, but Mercer County already lost a team.
Kennedy Catholic High disclosed Monday the discovery of an academically-ineligible player, who competed in last Friday’s District 10 Class A consolation contest.
Kennedy Catholic edged Eisenhower in double-OT, 66-62, earning a berth in the statewide tournament. The Golden Eagles were to meet District 9 champion Ridgway Friday at Clarion University’s Tippin Gymnasium in the opening round; instead, Eisenhower will represent D-10 as its 3rd-place team.
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