NEW CASTLE —
A banquet held to honor those being inducted into a hall of fame had a twist to it.
The 29th annual Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet, attended by more than 300 yesterday at the New Englander, wasn’t necessarily about the people entering its halls. The overall message given by the 10 hall of famers, and two others receiving induction into the Hall of Honor, focused on the people who helped guide them to this point.
The ceremony began with Mendall Altman and Eugene “Gabby” Kendra, who joined the hall of honor. Altman, a longtime player, coach and umpire, spoke about how kids were always the inspiration of his work.
“I’m not up here for myself, I’m up here for the kids,” said Altman, who continues to umpire at the age of 82.
Kendra, 93, was one of the ambassadors of women’s sports in the New Castle area. He coached one of the first women’s softball teams back in the 1960s, and while he also was a successful baseball and softball player, he said it was coaching his daughter, Kathy, that meant the most to him.
It wasn’t just Kathy who he helped guide through softball, though. He led the Polish Falcons for 10 years.
“I don’t know about 99 percent of you in here, but it’s a good crowd,” he said with a laugh. “Some of your dads probably know me because I played a lot of sports and coached a lot of kids.”
INDUCTEES GIVE THANKS
The first hall of fame inductee to speak was Ronda Book-Beery. Book was a three-sport star at Mohawk, graduating in 1989. She starred in softball (playing on four state championship teams) and also competed in basketball and track and field. She became emotional as she continued the theme of praising those who helped bring her to this point.
“Sports got me where I’m at,” she said. “My coaches and parents taught me to work hard, and it will pay off. And it did.
“Doors have opened for me through hard work and because of the people in my life.”
Former Union star Darren Berkley, also a 1989 graduate, followed and discussed how his former basketball coach, Mike Covelli, provided the confidence that Berkley needed to realize his potential in high school. He said Covelli’s assurance helped him earn a scholarship to Houghton College.
“Thanks for the encouragement when I was young,” said Berkley, directing his comments to Covelli, a past inductee who was in attendance. “He used to give me a ride to practice, and he told me if I kept working hard, I could play at the next level. I really appreciated you believing in me.”
Former New Castle football player and coach, Chuck Cuba, a 1953 grad, followed and commended his father for giving him the wisdom to become a college football player at Virginia Tech. He said it was his words of advice that stuck with him afterward when he was an assistant coach for the Red Hurricane from 1967 to 1978.
“My dad gave me a piece of advice when I was coaching,” he remembered. “He said it’s not what you know, it’s what you can teach those kids. I always kept that with me.”
Wynn Hassan, a New Castle graduate who went to become a standout golfer at Slippery Rock University, fought back tears as he spoke about how he first caught on to the game of golf.
“My father taught me how to play this game,” said Hassan, a former NCAA Division II All-America and Division II Academic All-America. “And one of the great things about golf is you can learn it from your father as a kid, and when you grow older, you can still play with your father.”
Neshannock baseball and golf coach Mike Kirkwood, a New Castle graduate, couldn’t hold back his emotions. Kirkwood, who’s boasts a 241-132 record and a state championship while guiding the Lancers over the last 25 years, talked about the many people in his life who helped him reach this point. He gave much of the credit to the kids who played for him.
“The whole thing about coaching,” he said, “is it’s not about me, it’s about the players.”
Kirkwood surprised his wife, Nadine, with red roses to thank her for her efforts toward their family and his career.
Someone who played with Kirkwood, Mike Latsko, a 1983 New Castle graduate, followed his former teammate. Latsko was one of the all-time great two-way players for the ’Canes. He went on to play for Penn State University and won a national title in 1987. It was his time in New Castle that was the most special, he said, because of the tradition he was part of.
“When I played, we all had brothers and uncle and dads who played at New Castle, and they won tons of games and tons of championships,” he said. “So we knew what we had to do to live up to that.”
One of the all-time great baseball players in Lawrence County history, Doug Peters, spoke next. The Shenango High graduate starred at Indiana University and eventually played professionally in the Kansas City Royals’ organization. He suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury while in the minor leagues, and talked about how his life changed for the best.
“A lot of people ask me if I regret not signing out of high school, taking the money and being wealthy,” said Peters, who was offered $50,000 by the Chicago Cubs after he graduated from Shenango in 1986. “I look at my four daughters, and I say I’m the wealthiest man around.”
Phyllis Cournan-Racek helped break down barriers for women — not only in sports but in other areas of life. She was a 1973 Neshannock graduate who was a standout in track and field during a time when few women had the opportunity to compete in sports. She later guided the Wilmington High girls basketball team to the school’s first WPIAL section title. Her accomplishments outside of sports are equally impressive, going from a teacher and a coach to an FBI agent.
“They didn’t look for me, I looked for them,” said Cournan-Racek of joining the FBI. “I went from teaching physical education to learning about criminal law and how to use a gun. Anyone wondering if that was a mind-expanding experience, it was.”
Finding ways to expand minds has always been an attribute of John Sarandrea, arguably the most successful basketball coach in New Castle history. Sarandrea enjoyed numerous accomplishments during his tenure, going 304-109 in 15 seasons with the ’Canes. He captured four WPIAL titles (the most in Quad-A history) and led New Castle to the state title game in 1999.
Originally from Brooklyn, he said discovering what New Castle kids were all about was an eye-opening experience.
“I had never seen a work ethic before like I did at New Castle,” he said. “Kids would give you their heart and soul. ... It’s amazing what can be accomplished when noone cares who gets the credit.”
Lori Haswell Stelter, another pioneer of women’s sports, concluded the evening. The 1981 Mohawk graduate scored 1,262 points as a basketball player and was named to the WPIAL All-Section team as a senior when she averaged 23.4 points per game. She later went on to become a standout co-ed softball player, winning a state title in 1990. She said playing sports from the time she was a child helped her compete at such a high level, and the competitiveness is something that still lingers.
“I couldn’t get enough of (sports),” she said. “That’s not something you can just turn off, whether it’s basketball or coed softball. I just love it. It was an awesome experience.”
Like so many others, she ended her speech by thanking her parents, the people who helped her reach the hall of fame.
(Click on the link, above right, to view a photo gallery from the induction ceremony.)
NEW CASTLE —
A banquet held to honor those being inducted into a hall of fame had a twist to it.
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