Chuck Wagner’s death, Freeport volleyball’s state title among A-K Valley’s top 10 sports stories for 2017

Saturday, December 30, 2017 | 11:40 PM

The Alle-Kiski Valley sports scene had plenty to celebrate in 2017, from historic playoff runs to record-breaking performances. The area also mourned the losses of local sports legends and coped with heartbreaking defeats on the field of play.

From the good to the bad to the sad, the area has much to remember from the year that was. And here are the 10 stories that made the most headlines over the past 12 months in the A-K Valley.

Loss of a legend

The Alle-Kiski Valley lost one of the most iconic figures in its football history in late September with the death of legendary coach Chuck Wagner.

Wagner, who coined the phrase “Hang in there tough,” did just that over a long coaching career that included a pair of WPIAL championships won nearly 40 years apart. And he continued to do so after his retirement, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's but returned to the sidelines as an assistant.

He died Sept. 25 at age 82.

Currently fifth on the WPIAL's all-time victories list with 270, Wagner began his career at Oakmont in 1961 and led the Oaks to a WPIAL Class B title in 1965. He became Riverview's first coach when Oakmont and Verona consolidated in 1971 and led the Raiders until 1985. He coached at Fox Chapel from 1988-90 and began the last stage of his head coaching career at Springdale in 1993.

Wagner revived the Springdale program, which had 18 consecutive losing seasons before his arrival, turning the Dynamos into a perennial WPIAL playoff presence. He led the underdog Dynamos to a WPIAL Class A championship in 2003 and to a runner-up finish in '07, ultimately retiring in '11. He later was an assistant for Riverview and Springdale.

“I thought he was a good person and the consummate gentleman,” WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said. “His admiration for football was unmatched.”

Other notable Alle-Kiski Valley sports figures who died in 2017 included John Brown, former Burrell and Pitt football star; Russ Clark, former football star at Kiski Area and North Carolina State; Bill Halli, former Kiski Area athletic director and football assistant; Dan Karlo, former East Deer-Frazer and Georgia Tech football star; George Mamros, a longtime Leechburg football coach who led the Blue Devils to their last playoff appearance in 1988; John Masarik, the first Knoch football coach; Andy Sebastian, Plum football public-address announcer; Brian Shaw, former three-sport star at Burrell who was killed while on duty for New Kensington police department; Vince Taliani, a longtime PIAA official and the father of Deer Lakes softball coach Craig Taliani; Stan Watychowicz, former West Deer baseball star; Sonny Westerman, the longtime Freeport Legion coach and co-founder of the Freeport International Baseball Invitational; and Paul Widmer, former Har-Brack and Arizona State football star.

Dominating the state

While Freeport's girls volleyball team controlled the WPIAL in recent years, winning four Class AA titles from 2010-16, the Yellowjackets were looking to make a bigger impact in the PIAA tournament.

They made their statement this fall, winning the first PIAA championship in their history by knocking off Delone Catholic, 3-1, in the title match.

Strangely enough, the best state run in school history came after Freeport was denied its third consecutive WPIAL title, falling 3-2 to Beaver in the WPIAL championship. The Yellowjackets rebounded to win four matches in a row in the PIAA tournament, including a 3-1 triumph over Beaver in the semifinals.

Claire Crytzer, Ally DeJidas, Courtney Grubbs and Hannah Mason earned all-state honors for their contributions to the PIAA title.

Taking teams to the mat

The Alle-Kiski Valley held a monopoly on WPIAL wrestling in 2016-17, as Burrell and Kiski Area claimed the WPIAL team championships for Class AA and AAA.

Burrell continued its dominance of the WPIAL, rolling to its 11th consecutive championship with a 44-27 win over Freedom. Kiski Area won its first Class AAA title since 2003, beating Canon-McMillan, 41-21, and later finished third in the state.

The dual titles came 20 years after the last time it occurred in 1997.

Devils' due

Given the past two seasons, Leechburg's girls basketball struggles seem a distant memory. But the Blue Devils rose from the WPIAL doldrums to a bona fide contender in a matter of three years.

Leechburg had a record-breaking 2016-17 season, winning a WPIAL playoff game for the first time in school history with a comfortable victory over Burgettstown. And although they lost in the next round to Chartiers-Houston, the Blue Devils advanced to the PIAA playoffs for the first time — and then made more history with their first state tournament win, over Coudersport.

The class of Mikayla Lovelace, Cam Davies, Makenzie Fello, Daesha Knight, Brittany Robilio and Hannah Berry — all of whom will graduate in 2018 — has led the way for Leechburg's revival. Lovelace, an IUP recruit, reached 1,500 career points in early December, and the Class 2A No. 4 Blue Devils hope they can make an even longer run in 2018.

Meanwhile, a pair of other Alle-Kiski Valley girls basketball teams joined Leechburg in the state playoffs in 2017.

• Freeport, starting three freshmen, advanced to the PIAA tournament for the first time since 2004. The Yellowjackets, who pushed Blackhawk in a WPIAL quarterfinal loss, fell again to the Cougars in the PIAA opening round.

St. Joseph, behind a balanced six-player rotation, also made its first state playoff appearance since 2004. The Spartans, who made the WPIAL semifinals, lost their opening state playoff game to Berlin-Brothersvalley.

Just keep swimming

Highlands' Bailey Bonnett swam in eight individual races at the WPIAL championships during her career. She won all eight.

Bonnett capped her decorated high school career by winning the 200-yard individual medley and 100 breaststroke, setting a WPIAL record in the latter. She added to her haul at the PIAA championships, winning both races to give her four career state titles. She won the 500 freestyle as a sophomore and junior.

The Highlands alum, a former Olympic Trials qualifier, is continuing to make a splash in her freshman season at Kentucky. She already owns some program records.

Springdale's Kevin Kondrit also punctuated his high school career in strong fashion by winning individual WPIAL titles in the 200 and 500 freestyle races. Kondrit, who also won the WPIAL 200 free title as a junior, finished second in the 500 free and third in the 200 free at the state championships.

Right on track

Burrell's Nikki Scherer and Freeport's Rob Reichenbaugh had more than a good run at the PIAA track and field championships at Shippensburg. It was a golden run.

Scherer won the 400-meter run at the state meet, the second PIAA first-place finish of her career. She also helped Burrell win the WPIAL Class AA team championship and took home four gold medals at the WPIAL individual championships.

Reichenbaugh claimed the 800 run at the state championships, the first PIAA gold of his career. He also won the 800 at the WPIAL championships, where he also helped the Freeport 3,200 relay win the gold.

Dynamic Dynamos

Springdale received a No. 7 seed in the WPIAL Class A boys soccer playoffs, making an extended run seem unlikely. Think again.

The Dynamos made a Cinderella run to the WPIAL championship game and the PIAA quarterfinals, the program's best postseason since its 1960s heyday.

During the WPIAL playoff run, Springdale upset No. 2 Freedom — avenging a 2016 postseason loss — and No. 3 Seton LaSalle in a shootout before falling to Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic in the title game. The Dynamos beat Windber in the PIAA first round before losing to Brockway.

Fear the Deer

Deer Lakes softball wanted to bounce back from an uncharacteristic 2016 season, when the Lancers lost in the WPIAL quarterfinals. The Lancers did just that, making a run to the WPIAL championship game for the fifth time in six seasons and advancing to the PIAA quarterfinals.

After an early-season loss to Burrell, Deer Lakes reeled off 12 consecutive victories before falling to Ellwood City in the WPIAL Class 3A title game. The Lancers beat Karns City in the opening round of the PIAA playoffs before bowing out against Philipsburg-Osceola.

Leechburg made it to the brink of the PIAA playoffs, falling in the WPIAL Class A semifinals and in the ensuing third-place game.

9. Foxes rule the roost

Fox Chapel's girls cross country team made it to the top of the hill in 2017, winning the PIAA Class AAA championship in Hershey.

After a second-place finish at the WPIAL championships, the Foxes outran all competitors at the state meet for their first title. Junior Sarena Seeger paced Fox Chapel with an 11th-place finish.

Coming up aces

Amanda Nord was a standout singles player during her high school tennis career, but the Fox Chapel senior especially ruled in doubles. Nord teamed with sophomore Charlotte James to defend their PIAA Class AAA doubles championship, the third of Nord's career. Nord also won four WPIAL titles in her time at Fox Chapel, previously teaming with Laurel Shymansky.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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