Tag Archives: WPIAL

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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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.

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.

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.

The ‘liberating’ art of speechmaking

One day before the start of the 2010 high school football season, I made the short drive from the offices of the Observer-Reporter to Wash High Stadium, a throwback to the glory days of the sport in Western Pennsylvania.

Walking onto the same field where the likes of Brian Davis, Dan Mozes, Travis Thomas and Shai McKenzie made headlines, I approached the Prexies, who were huddled around head coach Mike Bosnic, a former player at Pitt who was at the High following a successful coaching stint at Carmichaels.

Practice had concluded, and Bosnic was at the beginning of a speech to his players. A day from that speech, Wash High would host Clairton, a perennial Class A power with a national following thanks to its wildly successful winning ways. Bosnic mentioned certain players, then told the team how that player was going to execute his assignments perfectly to help lead the Prexies to a 1-0 start.

It was inspiring, powerful and impactful. After Bosnic was done and his players headed toward the locker room, I approached to talk. I told him I was ready to run through a wall for him.

Thank goodness he didn’t take me up on it as Clairton manhandled Wash High, 41-0, in a game more lopsided than the final score.

Bosnic’s speech isn’t famous, nor will it ever be, but it’s one of many I’ve been lucky enough to hear during my long career as a sports writer. Whether it’s at the professional, college or high school level, the art of speech making is essential in coaching.

Maybe Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello is a coach because he delivered my favorite speech at the 2014 Rock and Roll Induction Ceremony. Morello inducted KISS, and wasn’t a popular choice heading into the event. After Morello’s awe-inspiring speech, no one complained.

Why mention it now? Well, my daughter, Anna, and I were listening to “Destroyer” as I drove her to school Monday and something made me think of Morello’s speech. After dropping her off, I went home and watched it. Then, I went to the gym and enjoyed a fantastic workout.

If you haven’t seen the speech, please check it out. It’s chill-inducing and liberating.