Baldwin’s 1999 football team remembered for heart, toughness

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Friday, November 15, 2019 | 5:07 PM


The groundwork for the conference championship was laid at preseason camp at Slippery Rock.

The Baldwin football team stormed out of the gate in 1999, rolling to a 5-0 record then finishing with an 8-2 regular-season mark.

The Fighting Highlanders, a nickname established by then-football coach/athletic director Don Yannessa, captured the conference title before losing to Gateway, 34-14, in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

“We had some very good athletes at the skill positions,” Yannessa recalled, “plus small but tough linemen.”

It is the last conference championship won by a Baldwin football squad.

Members of that banner team were recognized Oct. 11 at the Fighting Highlanders’ final home game this season, a 31-28 win in overtime against Bethel Park.

Players in attendance were John Allison, Anthony Barca, Mike Bonnaci, Jason Cherok, Adam Dembski, Greg Gillen, Jason Godec, Tom Godesky, Robert Healy, Dan Kluczkowski, Ben Leidy, Dave Loutenheiser, Chris McConaha, Jason Preffer, Mike Ruffing, Jeffrey Saras, Sean Stoker, Matt Voelker and Mike Voelker.

Along with Yannessa, two assistants, Karl Geisler and Dennis Squeglia, were present.

Click here to view photos of the reunion.

“I’d have to say reporting to summer camp at Slippery Rock as a senior was a different feeling,” said Leidy, a two-year starter on the offensive line. “This was my fourth year at Slippery Rock as I went as a freshman along with our quarterback, Mike Joyce. Mike and I roomed together our senior year, and being two of the veterans we had confidence we had a strong team and it didn’t take long for all of us to buy into that. We left camp thinking it was going to be a special year.

“The expectations were to win every Friday night. I never went into a game that year thinking we could lose. The guys around me were the best on the field, in my eyes.”

Leidy was a starting offensive lineman as a junior and senior. He went on to play football for one year at Washington & Jefferson and one at Robert Morris, then switched to rugby for his junior and senior years at RMU.

In 1999, Baldwin started off with nonconference victories against Plum, 27-0, and Shaler, 28-14, then won its first three league tests over Ringgold, 21-16, Canon-McMillan, 15-6, and Trinity, 38-12.

The Fighting Highlanders rebounded from a 42-21 loss to rival Mt. Lebanon with three more wins at the end of the schedule against Upper St. Clair, 27-10, Uniontown, 59-26, and Bethel Park, 30-7.

The victory against the Black Hawks clinched the conference title.

There were many standout athletes on the ’99 squad, none moreso than Jake Godec, the team’s leading receiver and fastest player.

Godec went on to a five-year career as a cornerback at Youngstown State, where he set the school record in the 40 with a 4.33 seconds.

At Baldwin in ’99, Godec reeled in 39 receptions for 518 yards and eight TDs. He also caught a team-high 26 passes for 351 yards and three scores as a junior and added a 43-yard interception return and 93-yard kickoff return for scores.

Godec said his top memory from 20 years ago was winning the conference crown.

“Going into the season, our offensive line averaged around 200 pounds,” Godec said. “The expectation for the coaches was pretty minimal, but the players had high expectations. Our offensive line was tough. They had heart, and sometimes that’s all you need.”

In ’99, Godec’s TD receptions covered 44, 51, 24, 19, 14, 23, 32 and 17 yards. He tacked on a defensive touchdown on a 58-yard interception, and on special teams with an 80 yard-kickoff return and 63-yard punt return.

Godec also was a four-year track standout. He posted a 10.8 in the 100-meter dash.

Godec majored in criminal justice in college and moved back to the South Hills area earlier this year. He is a financial advisor.

It seems the play of the year for the purple and white was Matt Caponi’s 96-yard touchdown on a kickoff return against Ringgold in Week 3, which jump-started the team to its conference run.

“We had a dramatic late win at Ringgold that I don’t think any of us will ever forget,” Saras said. “Matt Caponi returned the kickoff to seal the win. (WVU recruit) Todd James was their kicker, and he put everything into the end zone but that last one. We just started rolling after that.”

It is the game Yannessa most vividly recalls from that season.

Specifically, he said, “the Caponi return on the kickoff after Ringgold hit a field goal to put them ahead with seconds left” was unforgettable.

One of Baldwin’s indelible victories came in Week 7 in a 27-10 decision against rival Upper St. Clair.

“1999 was a very special season for Baldwin football,” Saras said. “I feel we really got over the hump in our own conference, beating USC for the first time in years. It started with us playing Shaler down at Three Rivers (Stadium) for the Kickoff Classic. All our parents were tailgating, and the whole community really came together and believed in us, and we played for them.

“I believe that season came about way back when we were 5 and 6 years old playing youth football. We all came up together through the program and had a winning mentality that started at a very young age. Our coaches and even our parents instilled that winning belief in us when we were younger, and it carried all the way through our senior season in ’99.”

Leidy echoed his former teammate’s sentiments.

“I have to say beating Upper St. Clair was great,” Leidy said. “As an adult, I respect Jim Render for what he did for that program. But I have to say seeing defeat on his face at the end of the game was awesome. It was a very long time that Baldwin was able to beat USC prior to our team doing it.”

Caponi ended up as the Fighting Highlanders’ leading scorer with 13 touchdowns and 80 points.

Mike Joyce completed 73 of 136 passes for 1,095 yards and 13 TDs. He had six 100-yard games, including a season-best 210-yard, four-touchdown effort against Trinity in Week 5.

Baldwin’s leading rushers consisted of the C-C Crew: Caponi (110-534) and Cherok (83-400), who combined for 934 yards and eight scores on 193 carries.

Godec paced a group of 10 players in the receiving corps. Others included Barca (16-198), Caponi, Ben Schiebel, Dan McDonnell, Mike Voelker, Matt Fraser, Ryan O’Barto, Cherok and Jake Perry.

Joyce scored on four short TD bursts, and Voelker reached the end zone on an 18-yard interception return. O’Barto and Brian Iannochione scored on fumble recoveries, and Perry was credited with two points via a safety.

Corey McClain also provided an impact with three field goals and 33 PATs, good for 42 points. McClain booted FGs of 27, 37 and 35 yards.

“Expectations were very high for our group,” Saras said. “We had a very solid senior class and some younger guys that really jelled as a team. We all believed the season could be special from Day 1 at summer camp. It was never a grind of going to workouts or practice. We always had fun on and off the field together, but at the same time we never wanted to let our community or our school down.

“It seemed like we had a battle every week. We started off really well going 5-0. We ended up getting a reality check (against Mt. Lebanon) that made us refocus on our goals. They kicked our tails pretty good that game, which I think we needed.

“St. Clair still had that bulls-eye for us. Beating them soundly really made the season worth it to that point. Getting a win against a hall of fame coach is still a great memory to this day. We had Bethel Park the last week to cement the conference championship, which was a hard-fought game. But every week we had a tough opponent, from Shaler, Ringgold, Mt. Lebanon, St. Clair to Bethel. I feel we earned it and didn’t have it handed to us.”

Saras, brother of Baldwin athletic coordinator/assistant principal John Saras, has been coaching high school football for 14 years with stops at Peters Township, Elizabeth Forward and Baldwin.

He is vice president of construction for a company based out of Seven Fields and resides in Elizabeth with his wife, Jenn, and two daughters, Addison and Ella.

“The relationships to this day are still strong with our group,” the younger Saras sibling said. “We had our 20-year reunion a few weeks ago, and it was great to get all the guys and coaches back together.

“It’s amazing how you might not see guys for a few years but can pick right back up telling stories and hearing how everyone is doing. My best friend to this day, Ben Leidy, is still a huge part of my family. Our families hang out together through the year. Our kids have friendships just like Ben and I do, which is cool to see.”

Leidy is a manager at Koppers Inc., in Pittsburgh, in the commercial sales for railroad products and services division.

He lives in Cranberry Township with his wife, Chrissy, and their two children, Avery and George.

“Football at Baldwin has given me some of the best friends anyone could ask for,” Leidy said, “many of which are still intact today. Those that have gone in different directions, it is safe to say when we do cross paths it seems like we haven’t skipped a beat. I think about the glory days from time to time and truly do miss them.”

The flamboyant Yannessa is the all-time winningest football coach in school history at Baldwin. He was Baldwin’s field boss and athletic director for 14 years, then coached at Ambridge for six years before retiring after 2008 season.

Yannessa had only three losing seasons at Baldwin en route to owning every football coaching record, including most wins (82), winning seasons (10) and WPIAL playoff appearances (six).

His coaching career began at Aliquippa, his alma mater, where he was 142-44-5 over 17 seasons. The Quips won four WPIAL titles and were runners-up three times under Yannessa.

“My Aliquippa career was special, but Baldwin was a wonderful experience,” Yannessa said. “We did things that weren’t done before and haven’t been done since.

“I have followed them closely over the past 17 years. Fifteen straight losing seasons have been tough to endure, but I have hope with coach (Loran) Cooley and his staff in charge.”

Yannessa was inducted into the Beaver County Sports Hall of Fame in 1988, WPIAL Hall of Fame in 2014 and Baldwin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.

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