Category Archives: Sports

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.

Childhood heroes: Dusty Rhodes and Roddy Piper

It was a Saturday morning, 1980-something, and I was posted on the couch at my grandparents’ house on Water Street in West Brownsville. Nobody in the room could look away from the television.

Professional wrestling, as it was called back then, or sports entertainment for those born after 1990, drew us in like a tractor beam.

This wasn’t just some nickel-and-dime program filled with jobbers, ham-and-eggers and scores of larger-than-life characters. Nope, it was a replay of WrestleMania.

The first WrestleMania.

Within 10 minutes, I was hooked.

King Kong Bundy, Ricky Steamboat (who wrestled Matt Borne, a person I’d later write about as a sports writer), The U.S. Express (Barry Windham and Mike Rotunda), Junkyard Dog, The Iron Sheik, Cyndi Lauper, Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and two characters I was quickly drawn to – “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorff.

I was 10 years old, but I left my grandparents’ house a new man, transfixed by this blend of athleticism, brawn, violence and entertainment. It blossomed into a boyhood obsession. When forced to go to the grocery or department store with my mother, I immediately hit the magazine rack to scour pages of The Wrestler or Pro Wrestling Illustrated. I’d memorize each magazine’s wrestling rankings for various leagues – WWF, AWA, WCCW and, my favorite, NWA. I bought into characters. I truly believed Nikita Koloff was a Russian war machine incapable of being destroyed by American forces and, someday soon, he’d lead a communist takeover of our country and we’d be forced to live lives of misery, and singing Nikolai Volkoff’s version of the Russian national anthem. I spent Saturday mornings watching three consecutive hours of wrestling. Thumb wrestlers, rubber action figures, wrestling magazines – it all filled my closet and were among my most cherished possessions. I went as far as to figure out how to watch Saturday Night’s Main Event on my tiny 9-inch black-and-white bedroom television without awakening my parents.

We went to every card held at Cambria County War Memorial in Johnstown and Jaffa Mosque in Altoona. When possible, we hit matches in Pittsburgh. We watched wrestlers drive into the arena together. We were there so often, Ric Flair occasionally looked for us in the crowd so we could stand and salute the Four Horsemen. How cool is that?

Wrestling became such a part of my life I wanted to be a professional wrestler, and when I disappointed my parents with a report card, wrestling was taken from me.

Those six-week periods remain some of the worst of my life. At least me and a few friends had an imaginary wrestling company to ease the pain of not being able to watch.

Unlike many of my friends, most of whom developed a similar passion for a “sport” many of us believed to be 100-percent real, I gravitated toward the bad guy, or the heel as they’re called today. Hogan, Tito Santana, Steamboat and the like were of little use to me. I rolled with Flair, Arn Anderson, Curt Hennig, Jake Roberts and Randy Savage.

If the wrestler could cut a great promo, now that was worth something.

And when it comes to promos, not sure any did it better than Dusty Rhodes, the only true face who I found fascinating,  and Piper.

Rhodes, now there was a face worth following – the best face in the history of the business. Piper may be its best heel. Sadly, both died recently.

I received news of Rhodes’ death while driving to work June 11. It was a big blow. Rhodes was innovative, charismatic and the ultimate underdog. He wasn’t my favorite wrestler –  Flair was and always will be – but the yearslong feuds between the two leave me with lasting memories.  And no one cut a better promo than Rhodes.

Not even Flair.

Piper was the maniacal, kilt-wearing madman whose character was from Glasgow, Scotland. He brought instant heat to everything he did, and Piper’s Pit was often the highlight of WWF’s normally boring weekly programming.

Piper was a genius with the mic, so much so his in-ring work was not appreciated fully. From Portland to the NWA to WWF, Piper put in great work. He put people over. And, as wrestling fans wised up over the years, he became a beloved figure.

News of his July 31 death hit the news three days ago. Another reminder that we’re getting older and that the heroes of our youth can’t last forever, especially when those heroes made sports entertainment a career.

Schifino tells his side of the story

Getting the whole story is a vital component of journalism, and when it comes to the tale of Steel Valley High School boys basketball and its coach, Drew Schifino, many of us, including this blogger, are getting it wrong.

That’s the message Schifino conveyed when speaking to him. He initiated contact with me via Twitter in regards to this piece, which I wrote shortly after developing an opinion on Schifino’s decision to not coach the Ironmen in their WPIAL Class AAA playoff game against South Fayette. Schifino’s decision was in response to having Steel Valley’s leading scorer – Dom Keyes – ruled academically ineligible before the postseason.

The timing made it easy to jump on the decision, but Schifino, who remains Steel Valley’s coach, said he’s had little trouble maintaining the trust of his players and the majority of their parents. The fact he remains at Steel Valley backs up that statement, and he’s already anxious for the 2015-16 season to start,

“There was a player and parent meeting before that (playoff) game, and I told them what was happening and what I was going to do,” Schifino said. “Ninety percent were on board. A large majority have been backing me.”

Schifino, a former standout at Penn Hills who went on to play – and play well – at West Virginia and California University of Pennsylvania, knew his decision would be controversial.

“It was one of the toughest things I ever had to do,” he said. “I wanted to be there. The situation was tough for me, and I pretty much knew my name was on the line. I’ve had different adversities in my life, and the main thing is I’ve learned a lot of stuff. It’s easy to say I should have coached that game, and this is something I can say that I’d probably never do that again.”

What Schifino wants to do is to keep coaching at Steel Valley, and he wants basketball fans of Western Pennsylvania to look past the things they’ve read.

For him, coaching high school basketball is a passion. It’s a big reason why he gave up a professional playing career in Europe to return to Western Pennsylvania and take a gig coaching boys basketball at Waynesburg, which entailed a 75-minute commute to a school where many top athletes opt to wrestle during the winter sports season.

He counts West Virginia men’s coach Bob Huggins and Pitt men’s assistant Brandin Knight among his friends, but the college game is not for Schifino.

Schifino follows Steel Valley in offseason leagues. He offers one-on-one training with players from places as varied as Norwin, Fox Chapel, West Mifflin and Pine-Richland. Schifino said he trains an averages five to six players a day, six days per week. He’s in the first year of leading an AAU program, Oh Boy Sports.

And, during those hard winter months of the 2014-15 school year, Schifino drove Steel Valley players to school, as the school district does not bus students.

“I just wanted to give back. I’m a guy who worked hard and I wanted to show others where hard work can take you,” Schifino said. “During the winter, I drove players to school, and I’d go pick them up. People don’t know those things about me, but when I get mentioned, people just see negativity. It’s the only perception of me for whatever reason. I want people to see the good that is going on.”

Blogger’s note: No anonymous comments or comments under pseudonyms will be accepted.

Old-timer hits the court

A couple weeks ago, I attempted to hang with a group of teenage all-star basketball players, as mentioned here previously. The article appeared in Monday’s edition of the Observer-Reporter.

Here’s a link: http://www.observer-reporter.com/article/20150405/NEWS01/150409686

If you’d just like to check out the video, here’s another link:

Growing old gracefully? Not exactly

That's me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I'm pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

That’s me on the left. The hairline receded a little, and I’m pretty sure my nose actually got bigger over the years.

Guys, we can exercise, party, kid around and act young, but there’s no hiding an ugly truth.

We’re getting old.

Hairs are growing where they never did. Hangovers last so long, swearing off drinking entirely sounds reasonable. Joints creak. Muscles ache. Getting up at night to go to the bathroom isn’t an inconvenience; it’s simply part of the routine.

A couple doses of growing old truth serum were served to me recently. The first came last Tuesday evening when this 40-year-old challenged himself to hang with high school seniors trying out for the Washington-Greene High School Senior All-Star Basketball Game, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Washington, for an upcoming feature in the Observer-Reporter.

I consider myself to be in good shape. I run regularly for long distances and at faster-than-average speeds. I’ve placed in my age group at races. I lift weights five days a week. I play racquetball and walk our dog, Ringo, … ok, enough already, right?

The fact is, no matter how much I train, I can’t hang with the speed and energy of 17- and 18-year-old kids. That became evident during the layup line at tryouts. Granted, the line lasted for 12 minutes – 12 minutes! – but it wasn’t long before the breathing turned heavy. As for getting off the ground, a four-inch vertical leap was on full display – over and over. When it came time to get on the court, I was tired. The kids were just getting started.

The second dose hit the next morning in spin class. Normally, spin class is reserved for Friday morning but Erin wasn’t working and she wanted to do spin class. I originally balked. but relented. After all, spin class is an outstanding way to train for distance running. It strengthens legs, bolsters endurance and commands complete attention.

I’d like to blame her for what happened next, but, let’s face it, I’m getting old.

About 30 minutes into class, I rose from the seat for a climb when I felt something unusual in my right foot. On rare occasions, the pedal causes a slight discomfort – unlike many enthusiasts, I spin in sneakers. This, however, was different. It was actual pain.

So guess what?

Yep, I kept riding.

Who says people get smarter with age?

I finished class, but I knew something was off. As the day continued, I became convinced something was broken. Walking was excruciating. Shoes provided instant discomfort. Of course, I didn’t go to the doctor. Instead, I went to work.

After dropping Anna off at school Thursday morning, a visit to MedExpress was in order and, after a few x-rays, a diagnosis of a foot sprain was given.

It’s Monday afternoon and that right foot still hurts. A few people told me foot sprains are worse than breaks. I wouldn’t know, but I know foot sprains suck. I’m basically confined to the house with the exception of going to work. It’s making me a bit stir crazy, even if I downloaded Trivia Crack.

Getting old kinda sucks, too. I can’t do many of the things I used to accomplish, and I’m beginning to realize achieving certain goals I’ve set for myself may be better suited for less mature audiences.

Now, it’s time to try and get off the couch.

Kentucky’s historic run brings back the Willard years

Five-star recruiting classes are the norm for blue-blood programs like Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Louisville, where tradition, big-name coaches and NBA-caliber talent converge on a yearly basis.

A belief exists that programs like Pitt, which flirted with college basketball elite on multiple occasions in recent years, needs to seek out star-studded players – the ones who stay at school a year or two before seeking the riches of the NBA lottery.

There’s no doubting talent makes winning easier. Just look at Kentucky.

Filled with a roster of future NBA players, the Wildcats are 38-0 after Saturday night’s last-second victory over a game Notre Dame. Kentucky, led by former Pitt assistant John Calipari, can become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national championship with no losses. If Kentucky accomplishes the task with two more victories, it becomes a team for the ages.

Meanwhile, at Pitt, the Panthers land the occasional four-star guy and, on rarer occasions, five-star recruit. On the surface, Pitt shouldn’t be a tough sell. It competes in a Power 5 conference. the Panthers are regularly on national television and the urban setting – complete with an occasionally packed, state-of-the-art facility – is something a lot of inner-city high schoolers can relate with. Yet, most years, Pitt finds itself down the list on recruiting rankings.

It wasn’t always that way.

Pitt once brought in a recruiting class that had Panthers fans thinking big, and it wasn’t as long ago as one might think.

Hot-shot coaching prospect Ralph Willard arrived in Oakland after Paul Evans was fired following the 1993-4 season. Evans guided, arguably, the most talented team in Pitt history in 1987-88, but, like most Pitt teams, it underachieved in postseason play, losing to Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Willard’s hire was seen as a boon. He had been an assistant for Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Rick Pitino in the NBA and at Kentucky. As a head coach, Willard guided Western Kentucky to the Sweet 16, a place Pitt hadn’t been since 1974, when the tournament field was smaller.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Ralp Willard had the second-worst winning percentage at Pitt during the 1900s.

Willard was supposedly the answer to Pitt’s basketball problems, which were many after the program slumped mightily under Evans’ watch. It wasn’t long before Willard, whom Pitino once recommended for a NBA general manager job, was bringing in the type of players who would’ve had message boards and subscription web sites drooling, had those things existed in the mid-1990s.

Willard’s second recruiting class at Pitt was lauded. Some recruiting services – remember there weren’t as many at the time – ranked it second nationally. Second! Willard actually convinced some of the best high school players in the country to come to Pitt and play at the leaky, old Fitzgerald Field House.

There was Vonteego Cummings. The Georgia native could run the point, and was big for the position at 6-foot-3. Cummings was considered one of the top 20 high school players in the country.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

Still say that Vonteego Cummings is one of the most unappreciated players in Pitt history.

There was Mark Blount. A Parade All-American, Blount was a 7-footer and pegged as a future NBA player.

There was Michael Gill, a 6-6 swing player who was tabbed as the most explosive scorer in the group. Like Cummings, Gill was considered a top 20-25 player.

There was Andre Howard, a 6-7 force from Philly; Isaac Hawkins, a big man from the South; and Kellii Taylor, a smooth-shooting defensive stopper.

It was an impressive group, a collection good enough to make many believe Pitt not only made the right hire in Willard, but that the Panthers were once again an up-and-coming program, much like it was during the early years under Evans.

As for Willard’s heralded recruiting class, well Pitt made one NIT appearance during his coaching tenure, which ended in 1999. Repeat: one NIT appearance.

No NCAA tournament appearances.

Bobby Jones and Tom Crean, two of Willard’s top assistants, quickly found work elsewhere. For Jones, who spent several years as athletic director at Trinity High School, the move was a lateral one to Minnesota.

Cummings proved to be the best player of the bunch. Hawkins stuck around and was a solid big man. Taylor stayed around long enough to be dismissed from the team in 2000, a result of drug problems. Howard transferred to St. Joseph’s. Gill transferred to George Washington. Blount stayed for two underwhelming seasons, but never returned to campus following a Big East tournament and declared for the NBA draft.

Blount  was drafted, in the second round, but it would be years before he ended up in the NBA, though, much to his credit, he stuck around for some time. Cummings ended up in the NBA, too, for three seasons.

Willard brought other big-named talent to Pitt in Attila Cosby, Chris Seabrooks, Fred Primus and Willie Cauley. None panned out, but the latter keeps popping into my mind as Kentucky keeps playing in this NCAA tournament.

Cauley’s son, Willie Cauley-Stein, is a marvel, a 7-foot combination of speed, skill and incredible defensive ability. He’s lived up to the hype he received heading into Kentucky. His dad sure didn’t.

Willie Cauley was considered a top junior college player, a can’t-miss NBA prospect when he came to Pitt. The problem was Cauley ended up in more fights and more trouble at Pitt than he did on the good end of the stat sheet.

I covered those Willard teams though the 1996-97 as sports editor at The Pitt News, the university’s student newspaper. And I can’t help but think of that heralded group every time someone mentions Pitt needs to recruit more talented players.

Pitt needs to recruit the right players.

‘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.”