Traditionally, the “Year in Local Sports” feature recaps championships won, milestones reached and memories made throughout the region.
The Tribune-Democrat sports staff highlights the best of the year – the highs and in some cases the heartbreaking lows. We discuss those games and events considered to be among the top sports stories of the year in Johnstown and the surrounding region.
This year is different. Of course, that’s been the theme of 2020.
Instead of a championship effort produced on the football or baseball fields, basketball courts, hockey arenas or golf courses, the dominant story of 2020 didn’t show up on a scoresheet. The COVID-19 pandemic began to dramatically alter the sports world both locally and nationally in mid-March and never really stopped as pauses, postponements and cancellations of competitions and events piled up.
The final rounds of the PIAA boys and girls basketball championship tournaments initially were paused on March 12 and as the weeks rolled on, eventually hopes of crowning champions in hoops and some of the high school swimming tournaments faded.
Scholastic spring sports never had a chance. Baseball, softball and track and field seasons were canceled, in many cases suddenly ending the senior student-athletes’ careers.
Idle Cats, ‘Hawks
The Pitt-Johnstown wrestling team was among the top contenders to compete for a NCAA Division II team championship.
The Mountain Cats already were in South Dakota ready to begin the national tournament when the event was called off, thus preventing two-time defending individual national champion Chris Eddins from completing his stellar career with a potential third straight crown.
The Johnstown Tomahawks had won eight consecutive games and nine of 10 when the North American Hockey League paused play in mid-March. Instead of following up on the most successful season in Tomahawks history with another deep playoff run, the ’Hawks and the rest of the NAHL held a virtual playoff designed by the league’s IT gurus.
On the national level, the NHL and NBA paused their seasons and finished much later in the calendar year. NASCAR events were pushed back. The Masters was played in Augusta in mid-November instead of April.
The NBA playoffs were contested in a “bubble.” The NHL used two hub cities to decide the Stanley Cup.
Back on the local scene, the Sunnehanna Amateur Tournament for Champions was pushed from its traditional June date to the end of July.
The 76th AAABA Tournament didn’t fare as well. The loss of fundraising opportunities and uncertainty of how many franchises might be able to participate in the Johnstown event resulted in the cancellation of the tournament. The AAABA Tournament had been played every year since 1945 with all but the 1946 and 1977 events being held in Johnstown.
Fall high school sports, including football, endured a summer of questions. Will they or won’t they play? Will there be a delay?
Finally, the fall scholastic season started two weeks later than usual and played out to a conclusion.
A look back
While the dominant story of 2020 was the impact of the coronavirus, there still were plenty of highlights and notable feats throughout the year:
Cassidy wins gold
Bedford Area High School 138-pound wrestler Kaden Cassidy put into motion what turned out to be an incredible year of success for the Bisons athletic program. Cassidy won the PIAA Class AA gold medal with a 10-6 win over Saegertown’s Kenny Kiser at the Giant Center.
Cassidy went 38-0 during his final season, with 24 technical falls, four pins and three major decisions. He had placed third in the state twice prior to winning gold.
The PIAA boys and girls basketball tournaments didn’t fare as well as the wrestling championships, which were completed just before the pandemic-related stoppages.
Seven area basketball squads had seasons ended abruptly in the PIAA quarterfinals: the boys from District 5-A champion Berlin Brothersvalley (28-1), District 6-A winner Bishop Carroll Catholic (17-9), District 5-AA champion North Star (24-3) and District 6-AAA winner Richland (19-7), along with the girls from District 6-AAAA champion Forest Hills (26-1), District 6-AAA winner Cambria Heights (25-3) and District 6-AA fourth-place Bishop McCort Catholic (16-11).
Winning for Izzy
One of the more emotional moments prior to the stoppage involved the Greater Johnstown High School boys basketball team. The Trojans successfully defended their District 6 Class AAAAA championship in a 57-53 victory over Hollidaysburg at Mount Aloysius College on Feb. 22.
The Trojans won the 28th title in the boys program’s history. But coach Ryan Durham’s team was playing for more than a gold medal.
The Trojans dedicated their performance to teammate Izir “Izzy” Britt, who missed the latter portion of his senior season while battling a rare disease at UPMC Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.
The region’s basketball community rallied in support of Britt offering positive thoughts, prayers and financial assistance.
After the District 6 win, the Trojans players chanted, “Izzy, Izzy, Izzy” as the crowd cheered for the player who eventually overcame the life-threatening illness.
Best in the state
The Pennsylvania Sports Writers named Forest Hills’ Carol Cecere as Class AAAA Coach of the Year after she led the Rangers to a 26-1 record and a sixth consecutive 6-AAAA championship.
In girls Class A, junior guard Maria McConnell of Blacklick Valley and in Class AA, Bishop McCort Catholic senior forward Bella Hunt received all-state honors.
In boys Class A, Berlin Brothersvalley junior Elijah Sechler, Bishop Carroll Catholic senior Tristan McDannell, Shade junior Vince Fyock and Turkeyfoot Valley junior Tanner Colflesh were all-state picks, as well as North Star senior Andy Zuchelli in Class AA and Bedford junior Steven Ressler in Class AAAA.
With the high school spring sports canceled due to coronavirus concerns, all-star football events such as the Big 33, the East-West game and the Ken Lantzy Finest 40 also were victims of the pandemic.
The Ken Lantzy game was planning to celebrate the all-star event’s 50th anniversary game at Trojan Stadium until the pandemic forced a cancellation.
Pecora reaches top of Mountain
Pitt-Johnstown’s Pat Pecora became the all-time wins leader among college wrestling coaches at all levels – Division I, II or III – with No. 617 on Feb. 7 as the Mountain Cats beat Mercyhurst University, 22-12. In his 44th season at UPJ, Pecora broke a mark that had stood 46 years as a Sports Center crowd of 2,200 watched.
Since taking over the Mountain Cats program in 1976, Pecora has led 14 individual national champions who have combined to win 22 titles. The program has produced 154 NCAA All-American wrestlers and more than 100 NWCA All-Academic Team selections.
Pitt-Johnstown won NCAA Division II team championships in 1996 and 1999.
500 wins for ‘Ruk’
In his 31st season as Pitt-Johnstown’s men’s basketball coach, Bob Rukavina won his 500th career game in a 72-69 victory over Slippery Rock University at the Sports Center on Jan. 18.
Rukavina has led the Mountain Cats to four NCAA Division II Tournament appearances (1997, 1998, 2008, 2009). UPJ hadn’t had a winning season since 1979 when Rukavina led the 1991-92 Cats to a campaign above .500. The climb has continued since then, and Rukavina now has 507 wins.
200 wins for ‘Coach Mike’
Johnstown Tomahawks coach Mike Letizia collected his 200th career win on
March 7. Christian Gorscak scored the game’s lone goal and goaltender Alex Tracy had a 49-save shutout as the Tomahawks beat the Maryland Black Bears 1-0 at Piney Orchard.
Central Cambria High School graduate Max Murin was named a NCAA Division I All-American wrestler after going 16-3 at 141 pounds for top-ranked University of Iowa. A redshirt sophomore, Murin and the heavily favored Hawkeyes were preparing for the NCAA Division I tournament when the COVID-19 pandemic led to a cancellation.
Chestnut Ridge graduate Justin McCoy, a redshirt freshman 157-pounder at Virginia, qualified for the NCAA tournament by placing fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Third-year forward Christian Gorscak became the first Tomahawks player to earn the North American Hockey League Most Valuable Player honors. The Jeannette native also was the league’s Forward of the Year.
Gorscak scored 25 goals in 51 games as Johnstown finished second in the East Division after winning its final eight games and 10 of 11 contests before the cancellation.
He became the first Tomahawks player to lead the league in scoring after collecting 64 points.
45 and counting
There was no playoff push at 1st Summit Arena @ Cambria County War Memorial during April and May this year. But hockey still had a spot in Johnstown sports fans’ hearts.
The 45th anniversary of the Johnstown Jets’ Lockhart Cup championship in 1975 was brought to the forefront during those hockey-free weeks typically reserved for playoff runs.
Those 1974-75 Jets played in the professional North American Hockey League and were mired in seventh place as late as Jan. 19. Then, coach Dick Roberge’s team won 23 of their final 31 games and clinched the fourth playoff spot.
Playoff series wins over Cape Cod, Syracuse and Binghamton followed, with the the clincher on Cambria County War Memorial Arena ice sparking a rowdy celebration and a parade through the city the next day.
Captain Galen Head and players such as Vern Campigotto, Johnny Gofton, Guido Tenesi, Mike Chernoff, Jean Tetreault, Francois Ouimet, Reg Bechtold, Ron Docken and Louie Levasseur joined with tough guys Dave Hanson, and Jeff, Jack and Steve Carlson to bring aggressive hockey back to town. The group also inspired the script to the Paul Newman motion picture “Slap Shot,” written by Nancy Dowd, the sister of Jets player Ned Dowd.
The movie was filmed in Johnstown in 1976, a year before its official release.
Hall of Fame
The Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame and Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame each announced their Class of 2020, but neither induction ceremony was held due to the pandemic.
The Cambria County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2020 included: Former NFL and CFL standout Andrew Hawkins (football); former Forest Hills coach Don Bailey (football); former Northern Cambria player and college coach Melissa Myers (women’s volleyball); former St. Francis University star Jess Zinobile (women’s basketball); and former Navy running back Brad Stramanak (football).
The Pitt-Johnstown Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2020 included: Ron Haden (men’s basketball); Sally Mosay (women’s basketball); Ben Watkins (baseball); Brandon Newill (wrestling); and Mike Mastovich (meritorious service).
Sunnehanna in July
The 67th Sunnehanna Amateur was moved back a month and played from July 21-24 at the par-70 Sunnehanna Country Club.
COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and guidelines were implemented throughout the event.
Preston Summerhays became the youngest player to win the Sunnehanna Amateur with a record-tying 14-under-par 266. The Arizona State University commit won at age 18 years, 2 days.
Summerhays shot 68-67-66-65 to tie four-time Sunnehanna Amateur champion Allen Doyle’s record 266 set in 1992.
Passing of a legend
Six-time NCAA wrestling national champion at Pitt-Johnstown and former Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro guard Carlton Haselrig died on July 22 at age 54 after battling health issues.
Haselrig overcame adversity and long odds throughout his athletic career. He won a state wrestling championship even though Greater Johnstown High School didn’t field a wrestling team at the time.
The heavyweight won six NCAA crowns, three apiece in Division I and II, then was selected in the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers, even though Pitt-Johnstown didn’t field a college football team.
Haselrig advanced from the practice squad to the Steelers roster, and he excelled on the offensive line. Off-field issues cut short a promising career in the NFL. Haselrig later competed in mixed martial arts and coached wrestling and football at Greater Johnstown High.
Haselrig was among 26 sports figures who made an impact on the region to die in 2020. See the related story on Page C1.
The Cambria County American Legion Baseball League and the region and state tournaments were not held in 2020.
While the AAABA Tournament could not be played, the Johnstown Collegiate Baseball League played a condensed regular season and two playoff rounds. Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors won both the regular season and postseason championships. PCCA produced one of the league’s most dominant performances by going 32-2 with playoff series wins over O in the semifinal and a three-game sweep of Laurel Auto Group in the championship series.
First-year manager Cole Shaffer’s team was led by catcher Josh Spiegel, who went 4-for-4 with two homers in the title-clinching win, and pitcher Nate Davis, who was dominant throughout the season and the finale.
Unfortunately for the league champions, the season ended on that August night at Sargent’s Stadium at the Point. The 76th AAABA Tournament won’t be played until August.
Laurel Auto Group middle infielder Jake Swank earned league MVP honors and won the batting title. Paul Carpenter’s Davis took the Pete Vuckovich Award as top pitcher. PCCA’s Hayden Ford was the top rookie pitcher, winning the Bill Jenkins Award. Martella’s Pharmacy shortstop Grant Norris and Spiegel shared the top rookie position player Ken Horoho Award.
Thunder and Mill Rats
Sargent’s Stadium welcomed two new tenants in 2020.
The Flood City Thunder semi-professional football team debuted in the Great Eastern Football Association, playing three home games at Sargent’s Stadium. The Thunder went 1-6 in its first season, but quickly became a part of the local community. The team honored veterans and raised money for charities, including breast cancer awareness.
The City of Johnstown announced a five-year deal to bring a second collegiate level baseball league to the Point in 2021.
The Prospect League franchise leaders were introduced during a press conference at Sargent’s Stadium in September. A name-the-team contest followed, with Mill Rats emerging as the winner.
The team named General Manager Brennan Mihalick and manager Parker Lynn was hired in November.
Gold and silver
The scholastic fall sports season brought medal-winning performances to the region.
Rockwood High School senior golfer Vileska Gelpi captured the gold medal by winning the PIAA Class AA championship by three strokes. The two-time state runner-up and four-time PIAA qualifier shot a 74 to clinch the win at York Heritage Hills Golf Club.
Gelpi’s incredible career included four consecutive District 5-AA championships and four straight WestPAC crowns.
The Central Cambria cross country program had another banner season with both the Red Devils’ boys and girls earning silver medals from the PIAA Championships held in early November.
The Central Cambria boys team had its best finish ever at the PIAA event with 71 points.
Senior Toby Cree was the top Central Cambria finisher, eighth overall, and sophomore Devon Morgan was 17th, as the other Red Devil among the top 25 finishers.
The Red Devils’ girls team had 77 points, with Central Cambria sophomore Annaliese Niebauer 16th and junior Stella Kuntz 20th.
To the Point
The annual Point Stadium Award and Point Stadium Play of the Year honors were handed out in 2020, but following a familiar theme, the annual banquet was not held due to the pandemic.
The Point Stadium Award winners were: Martella’s Pharmacy infielder Grant Norris (baseball/summer) and Bishop McCort Catholic linebacker Brendon Bair (football/fall).
The Point Stadium Play of the Year winners were: Paul Carpenter Capital Advisors Josh Spiegel (baseball/summer) and the Penn Cambria High School duo of quarterback Garrett Harrold and receiver Nicholas Marinak (football/fall).
Unconventional football season
Throughout the summer, school districts compiled their return to play plans to comply with the state’s athletics health and safety guidelines.
As football season – and fall sports in general – approached, the monthly PIAA Board of Directors Zoom meetings took on greater significance as dozens of participants and media followed the online gatherings.
Fall sports were delayed two weeks. Once football season began, teams followed COVID-19 related guidelines and precautions. While a few postponements and forfeits resulted from the pandemic, the season was completed statewide.
Bedford Area High School won its first 10 games and advanced to the PIAA Class AAA semifinal round before falling to eventual state champion Central Valley.
The Bisons won the District 5-9 Class AAA subregional crown and advanced to the semifinal round for the first time by beating Hickory 34-17 at Windber Stadium.
Chestnut Ridge won its fifth consecutive District 5-AA crown, while Richland claimed its third straight 6-AA championship.
Fourteen area players were named to the 2020 Pennsylvania Football Writers’ All-State Team. In Class A, Blacklick Valley junior linebacker Nate Schilling, Conemaugh Township senior linebacker Seth Rosey and junior defensive back Jackson Byer and United senior running back Hunter Cameron were honored.
Berlin Brothersvalley senior quarterback Will Spochart and senior placekicker Brady Glessner, Cambria Heights senior linebacker Ian Eckenrode, Chestnut Ridge senior quarterback Logan Pfister and junior wide receiver Matt Whysong, Richland junior quarterback Kellan Stahl and senior defensive lineman Connor Rager and Windber senior defensive back Aaron Willis were selected to the Class AA team. Bedford senior defensive back Steven Ressler and junior quarterback Mercury Swaim were listed on the Class AAA squad.
Capping a great career
An era ended in District 6 girls volleyball as Northern Cambria High School coach Mike Hogan retired after 30 years with the Colts girls program.
Hogan led Northern Cambria to four state championships (2005, 2009, 2018, 2019) and 10 District 6 crowns. The former Penn State University men’s player had been a teacher and coach at Northern Cambria since 1989, guiding the girls program as well as a stretch with the boys team.
In addition to the four state championships, Northern Cambria finished as PIAA runner-up in 2004 and 2006. The Colts took District 6 gold every season from 2004-10. Hogan has coached all four of his children: Ashley, Russell, Jeffrey and senior Maggie. Ashley (2005) and St. Francis University signee Maggie (2018, 2019) each were on state championship teams coached by their father.
Law and (MMA) order
Forest Hills High and Pitt-Johnstown graduate Cody Law successfully made the transition from champion amateur wrestler to Bellator Mixed Martial Arts featherweight this year.
Law, 25, won his first two bouts in Bellator MMA.
He earned a PIAA crown at Forest Hills, began his college career at Penn State University and then finished at Pitt-Johnstown, winning a national title and being named a two-time All-American.
Red Flash take first win over Pitt
It was supposed to be a season-opening tune-up. Instead, the St. Francis University men’s basketball program earned its first victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers on Nov. 25.
Ramiir Dixon-Conover netted 21 points, and Myles Thompson had 13 points and eight rebounds as the Red Flash opened with an 80-70 stunner over host Pitt.
St. Francis had lost its top two scorers from a 22-win team, but managed to beat the Panthers. Pitt had won the first 29 meetings between the teams.
On Dec. 9, the PIAA Board of Directors had just held a Zoom meeting to announce that winter sports could resume on schedule. Then, a day later, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced guidelines and restrictions that included a three-week stretch prohibiting play or practice by high school teams and athletes.
The wide-ranging restrictions didn’t take effect until two days later, so some schools throughout the state still had time to play for one night.
Berlin Brothersvalley senior Elijah Sechler entered a Dec. 11 game at Rockwood 40 points shy of the career 1,000-point milestone. The Pitt-Johnstown signee Sechler netted 43 against the Rockets to surpass the mark in a 90-22 victory.