Monthly Archives: February 2015

‘Undefeated in Pennsylvania’

No NCAA men’s basketball coach won games at a more prolific clip in his first decade than West Liberty University’s Jim Crutchfield.

Last year, Crutchfield’s Hilltoppers reached the Division II championship game, and he entered his 11th season with a 272-49 record. That’s an astronomical .847 win percentage. This season, fourth-ranked West Liberty sports a 24-2 record, putting Cructhfield’s career record at 296-51.

Crazy stuff.

The only thing eluding West Liberty during this prolific run is a national championship, but, despite coming so close a year ago, it’s not a frequently discussed topic within the team.

“We never talk about a national championship or conference championship. Our goal is to win as many games as we can, try to win every game we play,” Crutchfield said. “We have two goals. One is to put a different product on the floor. We want to play a high-intensity game. Our other goal, as far as winning and losing goes, is we want to go into our conference tournament feeling like we’ve got a chance to win it.”

West Liberty will certainly be the favorite to win the Mountain East Conference championship when its tournament begins Wednesday. And its high-speed style of play gives the Division II program a level or national exposure rarely seen at that level.

As for that style, Crutchfield cut his coaching teeth at the small high school level. Before landing as an assistant basketball coach and men’s and women’s tennis coach at West Liberty, he was head coach at Cameron (W.Va.) High School through much of the 1980s.

If that school sounds familiar to readers of the Observer-Reporter sports section, it should. Cameron is a frequent opponent of West Greene and Jefferson-Morgan high schools.

Crutchfield hasn’t coached against those schools in some time, but he remembers the games well.

“I padded my record against those teams. I was undefeated versus Pennsylvania,” Crutchfield said with a laugh. “We always played West Greene, Jefferson-Morgan and Immaculate Conception, which I don’t think is there in Washington anymore.”

Cameron particularly enjoyed playing against Jefferson-Morgan.

“Our players always loved going into their gym” Crutchfield recalled. “Back then, they had a rim that was only 9 (feet), 10 (inches). Our guys thought they could dunk on it easier.”

Can’t quit on the kids

Drew Schifino was already considered one of the best basketball players from the WPIAL in some time when he entered legendary status.

It happened during the winter months of 2000. The highly skilled guard, a player talented enough to play any position on the court for Penn Hills High School, carried a good, but inconsistent team to a WPIAL Class AAAA championship.

To say Schifino single-handedly won the title might not be fair, but, yeah, he pretty much won a district basketball championship in the state’s largest classification by himself.

Schifino took over games, set a postseason record for points scored and Penn Hills dispatched several good teams along the way.

How good was the Peters Township, one of the teams Penn Hills defeated, in the 1999-2000 season? Well, the Indians, led by Eric Lang, went to Uniontown and left that overflowing gymnasium with a win. Remember, at the time, the Red Raiders were in the midst of an amazing multi-year run as an elite Quad-A team.

Wins like the one in Uniontown earned Peters Township the top seed in the WPIAL playoffs and a first-round bye.

The Indians reward? A quarterfinal game against Penn Hills.

Schifino put on a show. He scored at will and carried Penn Hills to a four-point win. The rest of the WPIAL playoffs followed a similar pattern. Schifino played otherworldly basketball, his teammates offered just enough help and Penn Hills won a WPIAL title and went all the way to the PIAA semifinals before it lost to Uniontown.

Schifino’s record-setting postseason display drew praise from every corner. Heck, even the holier-than-thou columnists from the Post-Gazette took notice. Considering how those scribes rarely “stoop” to writing about a high school athlete offers an idea of how much attention Schifino garnered.

From Penn Hills, Schifino went to West Virginia University, where he ended up leading the Mountaineers in scoring before being suspended indefinitely. He’d eventually land at Cal U., a frequent stop for former Division I athletes from Western Pennsylvania.

Schifino played professionally overseas and again drew attention when he made anti-gay slurs on Facebook concerning Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

The social media posts and problems at West Virginia were in the past, and Waynesburg Central High School made Schifino its boys basketball coach before the 2013-14 season. By all accounts, Schifino exceled in the role and pointed an anemic basketball program in the right direction before filling the opening at Steel Valley, a location much closer to his home, before the start of this season.

Steel Valley had its ups and downs, players and coaches dealt with behind-the-scenes difficulties, but the Ironmen still managed to make the Class AAA playoffs – another testament to Schifino’s burgeoning coaching career.

Behind the scenes, however, is where stories differ depending on the source, but it boiled over hours before Steel Valley’s playoff game against South Fayette. That’s when Schifino learned senior center and leading scorer Dom Keyes was ruled academically ineligible.

The timing was certainly curious, and the decision obviously angered Schifino, who refused to coach the playoff game, which South Fayette won handily.

Schifino claims he wants to return to Steel Valley next year, and told the Post-Gazette that the school board at Steel Valley wants him back.

The question is why? Schifino quit on his kids. There’s no way of sugar-coating it. Why Steel Valley or any other WPIAL program would give him a head coaching gig following this transgression would be something more than head-scratching.

No matter what was going on out of public view, to let down players is unforgivable. What if Keyes slipped getting on the bus and couldn’t play?

It’s life. Things happen. How you deal with it speaks volumes.

And this was an instance where Schifino, unlike the 2000 postseason, didn’t deal with adversity well.

High school athletics is about the student-athletes. Always has. Always will be. No matter your previous credentials, it’s never about the adults.

Road to recovery, 2/18/15

Metallica’s “Fade to Black” filled the room with a melodic, thumping beat. It’s delicate guitar – Kirk Hammett is an ax master – and surging tempo offers the perfect backdrop for a difficult climb.

Forty people – Wednesday’s morning spin class at LA Fitness Greensburg was a sell-out – catapulted from their seats and piled on the gears to reach the instructor’s desired RPMs. Not sure about the other 39 people in class, but hard rock/heavy metal songs coupled with a difficult climb get the adrenaline pumping. I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the song, even if the sweat started rolling off my head.

We were about 20 minutes into a particularly difficult 60-minute spin class, and I’m partly to blame for everyone’s troubles. Before the class, I was talking to the instructor in the locker room, and he asked what ride I wanted to do.

“I don’t care about the ride,” I told him. “Let’s get crazy. I’m ready.”

Famous last words, right?

As for that strength during “Fade to Black,” it didn’t last long. I kept riding hard, but Wednesday’s spin class was exhausting.

And much as that is my own fault.

When it comes to exercise, I go full-tilt. I see no point in not exerting effort during the workout. If I’m lifting weights, I move quickly, use a lot of weight (for me) and never do less than double-digit reps. In spin class, there’s no time to slack. A lot of riders don’t take it seriously, and they barely break a sweat. Fortunately for me, I’m a married man and a father. Tuning things out is a strength. I could actually teach lessons on it. So their lack of effort is lost on me. On the treadmill, I always add minutes from the previous run, throw in wild inclines or an intense kick at the end.

Only the strong survive. No pain, no gain. Yada, yada, yada.

The point is, I enter the gym every day with a goal of leaving it a better person. My want to push myself is partially responsible for the left calf injury I suffered about six months ago. Thanks to extra stretching, chiropractor appointments and common sense, the injury hasn’t returned.

And it better not, as I’ve committed to participating at the Pittsburgh Marathon as part of a relay team. It’s part of a slow, gradual build toward running the entire marathon in 2016.

It’s going to happen. I’m sure of it.

Now, off to the chiropractor for a 2 p.m. appointment. He’s going to strip down both calf muscles today. I won’t be able to walk later, but I’ll be able to keep on running.

The “joys” of home ownership

Old Man Winter is awfully cranky lately. Below-zero temperatures. Battering wind chills. And, lately, ice and snow joined the mix.

It’s enough to make a person want to stay inside with a crackling fire, thick socks and thicker blankets.

Inside the Kovak house, Old Man Winter (or maybe it’s just me) has been awfully cranky lately, too. There are thousands of reasons why.

New water heater, Check.

New furnace motor. Check.

New sewage pipes. Check.

It's not a pleasant smell after a cast-iron stack pipe is cut.

It’s not a pleasant smell after a cast-iron stack pipe is cut.

As for the thousands of reasons, it’s all monetary. These fixes, replacements and repairs run well into four figures.

Springtime can’t arrive soon enough.

If you’re a home owner, you can probably relate. Things always need fixed, upgraded or replaced. During fortunate times, light bulbs, furnace filters, door knobs and paint jobs are among the laundry list of chores. These, however, aren’t fortunate times.

The water heater and furnace motor were two things, the stack lines were entirely another.

The problem dates back to late fall, when Erin and I bought a washer and dryer as Christmas presents for each other. (I was only down for this if the dryer was gifted to me.) The hose drains into a double-tub basement sink, which shares a stack line with our second-floor bathroom.

The tubs were quick-filling and slow-draining, but the problem didn’t swell to the point of alarm until about a month ago. That’s when the water line rose awfully close to top of the sink. Well, it wasn’t long before those waters started overflowing, creating a mucky pond on the basement floor.

Now, I’m no MacGyver. I can’t build a house from match sticks and chewing gum,. but I’m a bit handy when it comes to plumbing.

So I went to work.

The sink was snaked. Lead pencils, ribbons and pens caps were pulled up (exactly what did the previous homeowner do with themselves!). Sadly, the waters still rose and overflowed.

Industrial strength pipe cleaner was purchased in bulk. It seemed to loosen things up, but the waters still rose and overflowed.

Finally, a shop-vac was used to pump gunk from the pipes. The gunk kept coming and coming and … get the idea?

Convinced a professional was needed, a call was placed to Try County Plumbing. The owner arrived, prepared for a quick repair.

No such luck.

The stack pipe, made of popular 1950s product terra-cotta, was broken. Sewage was basically sitting underneath the basement floor. The job required jackhammers, an unending supply of buckets to haul away debris, a healthy constitution to fight off the smell and patience. The second-floor bathroom, where the bathtub/shower is located was off-limits. The washer and dryer were rendered useless.

Ahhhhh, the joys of home ownership.

Yep, this winter had me reminiscing about life as a renter, when problems were an inconvenience but the financial responsibility of a landlord. Life can be simpler as a renter, but not necessarily fulfilling. Since moving into the Hillcrest neighborhood of Greensburg, we’ve undertaken a long list of projects, and there’s no end in sight. But this house is a home. And it’s hard to put a price on that.

Why Signing Day stinks

Sure, recruiting is a lifeline for any college sports program. No matter how good the coach or the coaching staff, winning regularly without talent and depth is a difficult task. Finding such talent during the recruiting process is essential, and it’s a skill that separates the Urban Meyers and Nick Sabans of the college football world from the Gerry Fousts and Johnny Majors (at least during his second stint at Pitt).

And, over the last 10 to 15 years, recruiting became big business. Guys live in luxurious homes just for following the travails of teenage athletes. Loyal fans pay subscriptions to sites, soaking up information about those who might decide some day to play for their team. Coaches even joined the recruiting hyperbole through social media, as recently witnessed by humorous Twitter posts from various members of the Penn State and Pitt football assistants. (News flash: Of course, Penn State would win this year’s recruiting between the two. Pitt’s had its head coach in place barely a month.)

We’re given national, regional, state and district rankings from every site from ESPN to fan blogs. Players aren’t known as much by name as the number of stars sites like Rivals, Scout or ESPN assigns. Follow those sites and find out when a player is visiting a school and attending a nationally televised basketball game or when that same player narrows 73 scholarship offers to five programs.

Coaches are criticized for not bringing in enough four- or five-star recruits. Recruits are analyzed like they’re entering the NFL Draft.

It’s nauseating, and it’s the most inexact science in sports.

And it all culminates every year with the worst day on the sports calendar – National Signing Day, which happens to be today.

Starting in the morning, fax machines (yes, National Signing Day ensures these devices are still created) light up in college football offices across the country. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and recruiting websites monitor every National Latter of Intent sent. It’s silly, yet essential. Without good recruits, there’s no chance of winning.

Yet, the analysis is overdone.

Look at Pitt for instance. Two of the Panthers’ best players in 2014 – James Connor and T.J. Clemmings – weren’t sifting through offers from national powers. Yet, Clemmings is a possible first-round pick in the upcoming draft and Connor enters next season as the ACC Player of the Year.

For days leading into Signing Day, we’re told how Antonio Brown – the best receiver in the NFL these days – was an afterthought in the recruiting process. Not many schools wanted offensive lineman Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.

Finding players like Brown and Fisher are what separates a decent recruiting class from a good one.

As for those four-and five-star recruits, rankings are often bestowed upon them at camps, when looking good in the uniform matters more than how the player performs in it. There’s an overhyped offensive lineman from Western Pennsylvania who earned a bunch of stars but couldn’t make first- or second-team all-conference as a senior.

So many other factors aren’t weighed on Signing Day.

That five-star recruit may be a head case. He may miss mommy too much. He may have a pregnant girlfriend back home. Worse yet, all three.

Good luck keeping that guy from playing in the PSAC two years from now.

It’s inexact and over-the-top. And it’s affected everything from Division II swimming to Division track.

Because of the attention paid to Division I signings in football and basketball, high schools everywhere are holding “signing ceremonies” – a ridiculous display of lies.

For starters, athletes don’t sign to play for Division III athletics. The reason? There is no athletic scholarship money in Division III. Another common foible in recruiting are the service academies. If someone plays football for the U.S. Naval Academy, that athlete doesn’t sign a National Letter of Intent, he accepts an appointment. As for Division II sports, unless the athlete is playing football, basketball or wrestling, it’s highly unlikely much scholarship money is involved. Yet, high school hold these ridiculous events to appease parents and kids.

Do me a favor, next time you see a “signing ceremony” on your local newscast, look to see if the athlete is actually signing something or just doodling on a blank paper. I’ll take the latter and give you 100:1 odds.

Happy birthday, Anna

Erin began having serious labor pains sometime during the second half of Super Bowl XLIII. A call was placed to the doctor. Erin wanted to finish watching the game, so did the doctor. I was ready to roll.

Her breathing intensified as the great Larry Fitzgerald shredded the Steelers’ defense for a late touchdown and a lead for the Cardinals. Our old, faithful golden retriever, Marley, was right by Erin’s side, his head occasionally on her lap in a canine’s attempt to make everything better.

Not long after Ben Roethlisberger’s game-winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, we were in the car and on our way through Pittsburgh to Magee Women’s Hospital.

Between 1 and 2 a.m., Anna Noel Kovak was born, and my life was forever changed.

Anna spent Saturday in Elsa costume for a Frozen birthday party with 12 of her closest friends.

Anna spent Saturday in Elsa costume for a Frozen birthday party with 12 of her closest friends.

After cutting the umbilical cord, nurses cleaned and wrapped Anna and asked if I’d like to hold her. There she was, all 7 pounds and 6 ounces of her. Wrinkly face. Dark hair.

Completely beautiful.

Now, there have been some powerful moments in my life – getting married, the precise moment the Grateful Dead’s music became an eternal soundtrack and, heck, even the time former Observer-Reporter sports editor Tom Rose was arrested. (If you need the details, fire up the Google machine.)

But I’ll never forget what ran through my mind the second I held Anna in my arms and looked into her eyes.

“I don’t know a thing about you, but I know I’ll die for you.”

Crocodile tears poured from my eyes. I was instantly smitten. Six years later, I still am.

Anna rules.

Anna rules.

Today marks Anna’s sixth birthday. She’s at school and I’m about to get ready for work, but it doesn’t damper the mood. She’s an incredible friend, and Anna amazes me on a daily basis. I marvel at her enthusiasm (a mother once told me Anna makes a story about eating bananas for snack exciting). her quest for knowledge, her sweetness and her exuberant personality. There’s nothing I don’t love about her, from the way she says “Daddy” to the way her pants always find a way to drift below her waistline in public.

Happy birthday, Anna Banana.