I've gone from grousing to gloomy.
For a small-town western Pennsylvania newspaper sports writer, Memorial Day weekend always meant two of the longest days of the academic year. But to be sure, two of the most exciting days of the year, also.
In the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Memorial Day weekend has harkened me back to the good, old days of the annual PIAA Track & Field Championships.
Shippensburg University served as the setting for: 1) lack of sleep; 2) sunburn; 3) sensational speed and strength displayed with heart. During the annual 48-hour showcase Seth Grove Stadium’s statewide stage saw some of Mercer County’s most memorable athletic performances.
Remember Clay Allen annexing 4 gold medals? He almost singlehandedly won West Middlesex the 2013 Class AA crown. Allen accounted for almost 40 of the Big Reds’ 60 points by turning in respective times of 10.72, 22.29 and 43.41 in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and as the 4x1 relay team’s anchor leg, and long-jumped 23 feet.
I can still see Middlesex mentor Ed Pikna’s smiling face, just as I can recall that of J.R. McFarland’s face when Wilmington’s boys won the 2008 AA title. Mere months after claiming the commonwealth crown, some of those same McFarland-coached athletes garnered the Greyhounds of Coach Terry Verrelli the PIAA Class AA football championship at Hersheypark Stadium.
And how about Hickory?
At this time last year the Hornets of co-coaches Bill Viccari and Tom Hale were hoisting hardware as Brock Grundy garnered gold in both the shot put (60-9 1/2) and discus (183-2). Two years earlier, Evan Blaire’s double-double had Hickory atop the AA field.
Blaire’s big year – 64-5 1/2 in the shot and 186-3 in the disc – was duplicated by his teammate Tori McKinley (40-11 3/4, 150-2), and both were named to the National Federation of High Schools’ Honor Roll.
Hickory’s girls captured crowns in 2012, 2015 and 2016. I can still picture Barb Dzuricsko’s smiling face atop the medals stand for the traditional team picture late Saturday afternoon, and Coach Keith Woods’ floppy, straw hat – an annual staple – at the throwing pits.
The summer season’s first holiday weekend also signalled warmer weather. You sometimes could see heat rising off the track’s synthetic surface on Saturday at high noon for the 100-meter dash finals.
That reminded me of Farrell High standout Ron Jackson. He intimated earlier that spring there were probably 50 sprinters in the state faster than him in 2010. But following the finale, Jackson proudly displayed his medal ... bronze, after placing 3rd in Class AA in a school-record time of 10.92.
A year later, a blend of awe and pride creased the countenance of De’mond Davis-White. The Sharon senior tossed the disc 171 feet to win the AA crown. Awe, because even the humble Davis-White seemed somewhat surprised by his success. Pride, while being interviewed following his win. When asked his mother’s name, it suggested he should telephone her immediately to share in his good news.
While it was enjoyable chronicling these athletes’ accomplishments, it also was inspiring.
Sharon High senior Jordan Williams was intent on breaking the 5-minute mark in the 1600-meter run. And in essentially her scholastic swan song, she clocked in at 4:59.01 to garner the 2017 AA gold. Channing Phillips’ blistered feet were so sore he barely could walk, yet he completed every lap of multiple events, and the former Kennedy Catholic standout earned medals to add to those he’d already won with the Golden Eagles’ basketball program.
I miss working with some of my favorite coaches, including Lakeview’s Greg Slatcoff, Jack Cress and Ryan Harold, George Junior Republic’s Ken Forsythe, Reynolds’ Kim Williams, Carl Hinderliter, John Bresnan and Ira Bartholomew, and Greenville’s Hall-of-Famer John Kokoski.
For me, a myriad of memories, monumental moments, names and faces wash over me like a wave in the ocean.
It began about 1985 while working at The Greenville Record-Argus. There, I was blessed by a great role-model, former Sports Editor Larry Howsare, who covered Greenville High’s 1983 state championship boys’ team – which was led, in part, by a member of the PIAA record-setting 4x8 relay quartet ... a Trojans’ senior at that time by the name of Brian Herrick.
I tried to take Howsare’s teaching of how the event should be covered, and – while perhaps falling short – attempted to emulate his work-ethic and reportorial skill. Now in hindsight and restricted by social distancing amidst the coronavirus crisis, I miss all those people and what that weekend represented.
ED FARRELL is assistant sports editor for The Herald. E-mail him at email@example.com