This is the first in a series of feature stories on the 2015 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame.

Second place in the New Castle News golf tournament haunted Ralph Litrenta for years.

Seven straight runner-up finishes and eight in nine years from 1992 to 2000 will do that to a golfer’s psyche.

“When I think about Lawrence County golf, it was all of the mishaps in my career in that tournament,” Litrenta said. “It was kind of a running joke, not being able to come out on top or ever win the thing. After each year, it was always the same story. I had friends come up to me and say ‘don’t worry about it, you’re going to get one. When you get one, you’ll win many.’ I never thought it was going to happen.”

Yet in 2003, with Litrenta holding a one-stroke lead with three holes remaining and his father battling pancreatic cancer, he took what had eluded him all those years with a little help from what he calls divine intervention.

“Just the things that happen in that round, he was riding in the cart and there were three holes left,” Litrenta said. “I had a one-shot lead and he came up to me and said ‘make two birdies and I think the tournament will be yours.’ That hole, I made bogey. Next hole, the pin was back-right and I hit a good shot and got it to the back fringe, about 15 feet away from a birdie. To this day, I don’t know how the putt went in. I smashed (the ball), hit the back of the hole, goes straight up in the air and falls in. That’s not supposed to go in.

“The last hole I got birdie as well. Afterwards when we were talking, I said ‘you wanted two birdies, I made two for you.’ That putt, I still don’t know how that went in the hole. If it doesn’t, there’s probably a good chance I never would have won one. Knowing that he was battling for his life, it was very special that it happened when it did.”

Ralph “Buff” Litrenta, his father, would pass from the cancer four weeks following his son’s victory.

But he finally got to witness his son triumph in the one tournament that caused him fits, something that the younger Litrenta is thankful for. The cancer created obstacles in that happening, but a few decisions in the committee’s hands helped Litrenta’s father witness history.

“He’s my biggest fan, every tournament I went to he drove in the cart,” Litrenta said. “For him to be there and to see it happen was just a great experience. The News tournament was always the last weekend in July, but the committee moved it to the last week in June. They felt the course conditions would be a little bit better. He was there and he already had his operation and gone through chemo, it looked like he was going to bounce back a little bit. But he never recovered four weeks later, which would have been the weekend of the tournament, he passed.

“I remember someone telling me, after I won it in 2003, they went up and congratulated him. He told him ‘what did you expect? I’m not going to be here next year. It’s a good thing he did it now.’ ”

Litrenta, 49, went on to many more accomplishments, which culminated in his induction into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame.

The banquet honoring this year’s inductees will be held April 26 at the New Englander. The social hour starts at 1:30 p.m., with dinner at 3. Tickets are available at the historical society annex from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays or online at www.lawrencehs.com.

Despite his father’s passing, Litrenta followed his first News tournament win with his best performance for his second-straight tournament win, then with another in 2005.

“I had a nine-shot lead going to the last hole,” Litrena said. “After all of these heartaches and mishaps and everything that happened up to 2003, I ended up winning by seven. My father wasn’t there physically, but I knew he was there. (In) 2005, I just kept the run going. When you get that confidence, it was a whole new ballgame. I ended up winning by two or three shots. But now it was ‘look at this, he was never able to win, but now he can’t lose.’

“When you talk about Lawrence County golf, it’s Mr. second place in the News tournament. More than anything else, that’s what I’m known for.”

Joe George, Litrenta’s friend for almost 30 years, knew it was just a matter of time before he shed that moniker.

“He’s just laid-back,” George said. “Nothing gets him too frustrated. His swing is similar, it’s slow and impeccable. He’s just laid back, doesn’t seek out controversy. Just goes with the flow. That’s the one thing that never changes with him. (The tournament) was always sort of a monkey on his back he couldn’t break. But it wasn’t a question of if, just when.”

Litrenta, an assistant coach with the Neshannock High golf team and a teacher in the New Castle School District, believes his best run on the links came in the 1990’s, despite his three-peat at the News tournament. That decade included wins in the Tri-State Open Championship, Western Pennsylvania Amateur Championship and was a two-time Western Pennsylvania Golf Association Palmer Cup Team Member.

PGA Tour legend Arnold Palmer also won the Tri-State Open and Western PA Amateur Championship, putting Litrenta on the same level when it comes to those event.

“His name is on the trophy, mine is right there with him,” Litrenta said. “I thought that was pretty cool, winning the same two events he did as he made his way to the Tour. Here I am, probably playing the best golf of my life in the early ‘90s and never winning a News tournament until 2003. It was crazy.”

Litrenta, a Neshannock resident, is the father of Annie Rose, 18, Abbey, 14, and Paul, 10.

(Email: A_Koob@ncnewsonline.com)

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Andrew Koob is a former News sports writer. A native of Doylestown, PA, Andrew has been published by the Philadelphia Daily News, PennLive.com and Yahoo! Sports. He's been the featured sportswriter since September 2014.

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