Category Archives: High school football

Deuce Skurcenski: A Western Pennsylvania legend

One word of advice I offer to young sports writers – the guys who graduate college and believe they should immediately be covering the Steelers instead of high school girls soccer – is this, “You haven’t made it as a sports writer in Western Pennsylvania if you don’t know Deuce Skurcenski.”

Deuce became part of my work life sometime during the 1997-98 school year. I was an aspiring sports writer, working at the Beaver County Times and being mentored by John Perrotto, who I still consider the best sports reporter in Western Pennsylvania, and Bill Utterback, a top-notch writer whose abilities supercede those of newsprint.

Once you get to know Deuce, you have stories to last decades. He’s a statistics-keeping force of nature that can only happen in Western Pennsylvania.

Two of these Deuce cards hand at my desk. They weren't the only Deuce baseball cards.

Two of these Deuce cards hand at my desk. They weren’t the only Deuce baseball cards.

I can’t forget sitting beside Deuce at Three Rivers Stadium during the 1998 WPIAL football championships. I was there, with Utterback, Jim Equals, Bill Allmann and crew, covering the Class A tilt – as Deuce would say – between Rochester and Monaca, and the triple-A fray – another Deuceism – between Blackhawk and Moon (if memory serves correct).

While writing during the Class AA game between Shady Side Academy and Wash High, Deuce continually asked …

“Was that Ruggerio or Alexander on the carry?”

“Do you have eight or nine yards on that carry?”

Well, I didn’t have Ruggerio or Alexander for eight or nine yards.I wasn’t covering the game, something I told Deuce repeatedly. He never stopped asking.

A year later, I was working at the Observer-Reporter and covering the Class AA championship game between Waynesburg and Wash High.

The Raiders were rolling when, at halftime, I went to the restroom. Deuce was at the urinal beside me, and he kept looking over with that look – the one that indicated he had something important to say.

“What’s up Deuce?” I asked, a slight regret in my voice..

Deuce zipped up, stepped back and dropped into a two-point stance, “Awwwwww, Miiiike Kovakkkk, Lanfer Simpson, ooooohhhhhhhhhhhhh.” As Deuce aptly described the Raiders’ dominating fullback/linebacker, his hands flew in the air and he shook them rapidly. Think spirit fingers from “Bring It On.”

There was the time Deuce was supposed to drive to Uniontown with me for a big-time hoops game between Peters Township and the Red Raiders – two of the top Quad-A teams in the state at the time – but he backed out at the last minute. If you know his history with Uniontown, you understand why.

For all the funny stories and sayings Deuce provided sports writers, coaches and athletes, he always greeted you with a smile and a handshake. He always called you by name. He always identified where you worked. He always told you to tell co-workers that, “Deuce Skurcenski says hello.” One thing I always admired about Deuce, to him, it didn’t matter if you worked at a weekly, a low-watt radio station, a suburban daily with a dwindling subscription base or one of the big metros, he treated you the same. And that’s to say he treated you well.

Deuce was also a tremendous self-promoter. He carried Deuce baseball cards. He autographed them and personalized them. He told you how many football and basketball games he attended, whether it was for the Post-Gazette, Woodland Hills High School or himself.

Many of those cards still hang at my desk.

Living on the South Side Flats for years, I often bumped into Deuce while walking my dog during the day or late at night, walking home with friends after a night on Carson Street. Those friends always asked who I was talking to outside Paparazzi restaurant. I always said, “He’s too hard to explain.”

Thank goodness his essence was captured in an entertaining 2008 documentary, a film Chris Dugan and I made sure to attend during a special screening at a South Side theater. Still remember a wide-smiling Deuce asking us what we thought about the flick afterward.

Lawrence “Deuce” Skurcenski died Tuesday night. He was 73. Old friend Mike White of the Post-Gazette knew Deuce as well as anyone in the region, and he wrote this obituary.

High school and small-college sports in Western Pennsylvania won’t be the same.

Rest easy, Deuce.

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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.

Somerset: a football school?!

Should the Somerset Area High School baseball team advance to the PIAA Class AAA semifinals, that wouldn’t exactly be classified as a surprise.

After all, the Golden Eagles are a frequent qualifier for the state playoffs, and they played for the Class AAA title in 2008.

Somerset also produces the occasional state track medalist. The boys basketball team pops into the state bracket from time to time.

But football? Somerset and football usually mix as well as Dylan and the Dead (Looked good on paper, but lacked in execution)  or Paul Roma rolling with the Four Horsemen (a disastrous decision that forever tainted the Horsemen’s legacy).

Go back 50-55 years. There aren’t many landmark seasons for Somerset football. When the Golden Eagles were strong in the early 1990s, they couldn’t get past Forest Hills. In the 2012 and 2013 seasons, Richland proved to be the Golden Eagles’ foil, so did teams like University Prep and Clearfield.

Those recent losses must have provided motivation and inspiration, because things changed drastically this fall. Somerset, where high school football was often an afterthought before Bob Landis became head coach, has postseason fever for the first time.

Somerset rolled through the first nine weeks of the regular season, consistently ranking among the state’s top five scoring offenses and shutting down opponents on defense. Scored were lopsided. Optimism slowly climbed.

Somerset 41, Bishop Carroll 0; Somerset 43, Forest Hills 12; Somerset 42, Bedford 20; Somerset 55,, Richland 6; Somerset 50, Greater Johnstown 13; Somerset 55, Westmont Hilltop 7; Somerset 54, Bishop McCort 14; Somerset 47, Cambria Heights 0; Somerset 35, Penn Cambria 7.

Junior quarterback Dylan Barnes developed into a game-breaking dual threat. Junior Jake Heiple paced a fast-break ground game that averaged 250 yards per game. Three receivers average at least 22 yards per catch, including senior Bryce Mostoller’s eye-popping 38.3 average on 33 catches. Somerset doesn’t post insane passing numbers, but it’s enough to be respected by defenses.

Speaking of defense, the Golden Eagles forced turnovers, created pressure and made plays everywhere. Mostoller has 31 tackles for loss; Raven Beeman has 28.

All those playmakers combined with excellent special teams had people talking in Somerset. This cozy, quaint baseball community thought these Golden Eagles might be the town’s best football team since the 1950s. A Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference title was a win – at home – away.

Then, in the Week 10 regular season finale, Bishop Guilfoyle came to Somerset and won easily. It was shades of the late 80s and early 90s. A rare great regular season capped with a disappointing home loss.

And the loss didn’t seem like a good sign for postseason success as Guilfoyle, despite being a private school, is Class A.

Well, Bishop Guilfoyle is convincingly in the PIAA Class A semifinals.

As for Somerset? The Golden Eagles are part of the Class AAA final four.

Sound crazy? It is.

But Somerset certainly earned its way.

At 14-1, Somerset carries a five-game win streak into Saturday’s semifinal against perennial power Archbishop Wood, winners of the last two Class AAA titles. Somerset manhandled Punxsutawney and Clearfield to win the District 5-6-8-9 subregion. It followed with a 42-14 win over District 4 champ Selinsgrove in its first PIAA playoff game. Last Saturday, Somerset shut out Bethlehem Catholic.

So here sits Somerset, a community known for farming, coal mining, skiing and hunting, with the big boys of Class AAA football. Archbishop Wood is loaded. So are the semifinalists in the western side of the bracket – WPIAL champ Central Valley and Bishop McDevitt, alma mater of LeSean McCoy. Those schools boast Division I talent.

Somerset, a decided underdog Saturday, has kids who don’t go to school the first day of deer season. Pretty sure the school gives students that day off. At least that was the case when I attended Somerset more than 20 years ago.

Not that it matters because, at least for this magical fall, Somerset played plenty of big-boy football.

Deer season can wait.