The newest class to be enshrined in the Mercer County Hall of Fame poses for a photo on Saturday at The Park Inn by Radisson, near West Middlesex. Front row, left to right: Denny Staul, Father Rick Tomasone, Diane Flint, Molly Kepner Foster and Gary Taylor. Back row: Doug Labor, Mike Archie, R.J. Bowers, Jerome Thomas, Bill Dzuricsko and Joe Veres. Diane Flint represented posthumous inductee Judson Flint.

SHENANGO TWP. – This much is certain regarding the Mercer County Hall of Fame’s 2020 induction class: They have tunnel vision, somewhat – but 2020 vision, to be sure insofar as what brought them to their lofty status.

“It’s always been humbling for me, comin’ from a small hometown and being fortunate enough to go on and do the things I did accomplish,” related former Sharon High, Penn State University and NFL running back Michael Archie, who emphasized, “And that’s not bragging on myself. What I love about what I’ve been able to accomplish is from the help and support from this area.”

Those enshrined during the 73rd annual event at The Park Inn by Radisson increased to 590 the number of area athletic greats who have been enshrined in the “Oldest Local Hall of Fame in the World.”

In addition to Archie, those honored Saturday evening included R.J. Bowers, Bill Dzuricsko, Molly Kepner Foster, Doug Labor, Denny Staul, Gary Taylor, Jerome Thomas, Father Rick Tomasone, Joe Veres, and (posthumously) Judson Flint. Jerel Flint accepted on his father’s behalf.

“For me, especially with the job I’m doing now (Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas judge) it’s great to see members of the community come together,” began featured speaker, former Cleveland Browns’ linebacker Dick Ambrose. “For a group of people to get together for something positive, I think it’s really good for a community and for society in general.

“We celebrate the lives of the individuals for being inducted into the hall of fame. They accomplished something in their lives,” Ambrose continued. “They had to get there through dedication and sacrifice, which is a great example for all. ... It’s great to honor the positive things that are going on in our world.”

Lanny Frattare, who has served as the event’s master of ceremonies for 3-plus decades and partaken in 400 enshrinements, lauded the Class of 2020 for being “men and women who have sewn their names into the fabric of Mercer County ... men and women who have displayed a commitment to excellence and a desire to accept all the challenges defined by the world of sports ...”

“I’m humbled, first of all, humbled,” emphasized former Lakeview High standout Kepner Foster. “I look at the people who’ve come from Lakeview who are in (the Hall of Fame) – fabulous people! And you look at the roster of other people who are in it from around Mercer County, and I’m humbled.”

“It’s an honor,” admitted former West Middlesex High, Grove City College and NFL player Bowers. “Just to see some of the past inductees and to be part of this, it’s just awesome.”

“I was talkin’ to Mike Archie, and he said when we started we didn’t think this (Hall of Fame) was the goal; the goal was just to help our team, play sports and have fun. This is just icing on the cake,” related Bill Dzuricsko. 

Dzuricsko’s distinction is that he joins his wife, Barb, as a Mercer County Hall-of-Famer. Not too many married couples can make that claim. His induction, Dzuricsko admitted, is humbling, even for someone who devoted 38 years to teaching and coaching Hermitage School District students for 38 years.

“Absolutely! Especially in looking at some of these guys who had professional careers. I look at myself and I’m just a teacher and a coach – that’s a profession, also – but it’s nice to be up here with these guys who played pro baseball and pro football,” Dzuricsko added.

Mrs. Dzuricsko – a 2017 Hall of Fame inductee – related she did not permit herself to enjoy any of her mementoes from her induction 3 years ago; instead, choosing to wait to share that moment with her husband on Saturday night.

The Dzuricskos are high school sweethearts who married in 1982, and Mrs. Dzuricsko related, “I’m very proud of that for him, but I’m also proud for us. Ever since we’ve been in high school we have supported each other’s careers ... I couldn’t have done all that I did in coaching without him being a part of it.”

“It is kind’ve humbling, because I’ve been away from the (Shenango) valley for nineteen years. So to be back and to be recognized really is an honor,” related Father Tomasone, who took then Kennedy Christian High (now Kennedy Catholic) girls’ basketball team to the 2001 PIAA Class A championship – Mercer County’s lone female commonwealth cage championship club.

A Warren, Pennsylvania native, Father Tomasone noted, “I was here (in Mercer County) for twenty years. So I lived in the Shenango Valley longer than I lived in my own hometown. ... Even though I’m not native to the area, I think I’m ‘local’ enough.”

Some of the evening’s other highlights:

• Winners of the Thomas W. Burns Academic All-Stars awards included Kayla Jewell and Keane Cropp (Commodore Perry); Ja’Zell Brodie and Brian Thomas (Farrell); Carmelo Ocasio (George Junior Republic); Julia Giroski and Mason Karpinski (Greenville); Abigail Shipton and Ramsey Saltrick (Grove City); Natalie Bell and Alexander Nelson (Hickory); Camille McClimans and Elliot Steadman (Jamestown); Sally Feeney and Nathaniel Aszalos (Kennedy Catholic); Grace Gadsby and Logan Hogue (Lakeview); Kayleigh Rickard and Daniel Scheidhauer (Mercer); Ericka Fiorenza and Beau Bayless (Reynolds); Denise Williams and Zachary Cattron (Sharon); Tessa Carlin and Michael Lindstedt (Sharpsville), and Alyssa Nehlen and Alexander Kachulis (West Middlesex).

• The 2019 Si Lyman Award – presented to the school district with the highest cumulative winning percentage in its athletic program – was won by Grove City High for the 4th time in the last 5 years. Since the award’s 1978 inception, Grove City has garnered the prize 12 times (while sharing it with Hickory and West Middlesex in 2012). Athletic Director Casey Young accepted the award, citing the school district’s board of directors and administration, student-athletes, and coaches.

• PIAA championship squads from Mercer County, including Farrell football, Kennedy Catholic boys’ basketball, Reynolds wrestling, Hickory track & field, and West Middlesex baseball were recognized. The respective coaches included Anthony Pegues, Rick Mancino, Casey Taylor, Bill Viccari and Tom Hale, and Kevin Hoffman. Farrell is the 2-time Class 1A champion, while Kennedy Catholic has captured 4 consecutive commonwealth crowns (3 in single-A and last season in Class 6A), while Reynolds wrestling and Hickory track & field has blossomed into perennial powers. The Big Reds’ baseball championship is a first for the county.

• Board members John Weaver and Jim Patterson presided over the “Let Us Not Forget” segment of the evening, honoring athletes who passed during 2019. The bell, dedicated to the memory of Hall-of-Famer and former board member Denny Eckles and donated by Hall of Fame friends Carol DiPace and Cookie Backelman, tolled for each individual in a moving tribute.

The evening belonged to the 11 honorees and their families. 

“All of the men and women we honor and all we have honored in the past tasted the sweet wine of victory and the pungent vinegar of defeat,” Frattare noted. “The lives of all of the Mercer County inductees were enriched by the realization that what the scoreboard told us is who won or lost that day. But it did not tell us who were the winners in life. The winners in life were those who accepted the fact that nothing is guaranteed, and only through hard work and hard preparation could you hope to experience the true knowledge of athletics.

“What is the true knowledge of athletics?” Frattare rhetorically asked. “For me, it is that character matters ... more than talent. Granted, some of the lessons of sport may vary, based on the talents of the individuals and the subsequent results of the games, the seasons and the careers. But everybody who competes should know that, to be a winner in sports and a winner in life, all you need to do is your best and be the best person you can be: Honest and trustworthy, following the rules of the games, and the commandments of our Lord ... “

Added Ambrose, “I know, if I get an award or an honor, I really don’t feel like the focus should be on me – but about the people that got me here. And I think that’s mostly the way people feel at times like this when they’re honored and inducted. And,” Ambrose added, “You can always hear it in their acceptance speeches – their family, their friends, coaches who were there that helped them get to the top.

“Certainly, one thing of a true champion,” Ambrose continued, “is that you remember those who got you where you got. ... The way these people got here is through dedication and determination, but they didn’t get here by themselves. They have their family members and friends who were there along the way, so they really honor those people, as well.

“They had the love of their families, friends, coaches. And without that love they wouldn’t have been able to move forward. And,” Ambrose added, “that is the most powerful force in our universe – love – and I think we need a little bit more of that.”

Notes: The annual event is sponsored Mike Erme, Cottonwood Associates, ComDoc and Mel Grata. ... The program booklet was dedicated to board members Jamie Raykie and Tricia Schweiss. ... Kaitlyn Slezak again provided a lovely rendition of the National Anthem, while Rev. Robert “Lefty” Flack offered the invocation and benediction.

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