Sports luminaries highlight long-awaited West Jefferson Hills Hall of Fame inductions

Sunday, March 26, 2023 | 11:01 AM

West Jefferson Hills announced it was starting the Hall of Fame program during the 2019-20 school year, but the first class never was recognized due to the covid-19 pandemic.

The district relaunched its program last fall and re-opened the nomination process.

On March 4, WJHSD inducted the members into the district’s inaugural Hall of Fame classes.

Thomas Jefferson High School graduates who have distinguished themselves in the areas of academics, arts or athletics, as well as staff and community members, were eligible for induction if they met established criteria. Nominees included former students, teachers, staff and community members “who have made unique and/or lasting contributions” to the district and the West Elizabeth, Jefferson Hills and Pleasant Hills communities.

A total of 29 TJ graduates and two athletic teams were inducted. The HOF banquet took place at Georgetown Center. Honorees traveled from as far away as San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, New York City and Florida to attend.

Kelly Langenohl Dzanaj, a 2006 TJ graduate and afternoon drive host on 100.7 The Star, served as master of ceremonies.

Here is a look at inductees in field of athletics.

Class of 2022-23

Bill Arre (2005)

Arre is the all-time leading scorer in TJ boys basketball with career 1,230 points and in Lock Haven University men’s basketball with 2,112 points.

At Lock Haven, Arre, a 6-foot-5 forward, was a four-time All-PSAC selection and was named PSAC West Freshman of the Year in 2005-06. He also was honored as PSAC Player of the Year in 2006-07.

He currently is employed as a commercial salesman for South Hills Movers and is an assistant coach in the TJ boys basketball program.

“I am extremely honored and humbled to be inducted into the Hall of Fame,” Arre said. “This school district and community has meant a lot to me over the years, and I have been incredibly blessed to be around so many great people.

“Being on the coaching staff for the JV and varsity men’s basketball team has also been rewarding to me. I have had some amazing teammates and coaches throughout the years, and I am forever grateful for that.”

Arre said the biggest influences in his athletic career have been his father and mother (Bill and Francine).

“They always supported and believed in me, even if there were times that I didn’t believe in myself,” Arre said. “They instilled in me at a very young age to work hard and always strive to be the best. There were countless hours of running around to practice and games, and they never complained.

“My success today would not be possible without their love and support. This honor is not only mine but theirs, as well.”

Arre played professionally for four years in Luxembourg with and against players from across the world.

“It was a very high level of competition,” Arre said. “Just to be able to get paid and make a living playing basketball, it was a dream come true. We played preseason games in places like France and Belgium. It was amazing.

“People in towns in Luxembourg grew up following these teams. It’s not that big of a country, so no matter where you go, there were people who know who you are. You were pretty well respected.”

The Hall of Fame induction was a bit bittersweet for Arre as his mom, Francine, died in 2020 from a long battle with cancer.

“She was a graduate of TJ and knew a lot of the families and teachers from TJ,” Arre said, “so I know how much excitement she would have had for this induction. She was an amazing person.”

Jimbo Cramer (1972)

Cramer was voted the best football player in school history in 2008. He earned all-state honors as a TJ football player and was the conference Most Valuable Player on offense and defense as a senior in 1971.

He also played Division I football, first at Ohio State, then Pitt, where he was a member of the 1976 national championship team.

After a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks, Cramer went on to coach as a graduate assistant at Pitt and later as an assistant at Brentwood.

Dom DeCicco (2007)

DeCicco is the only TJ football player to pass and run for 1,000 yards in a season. He played wide receiver, quarterback, safety, cornerback and kick/punt returner at TJ and was called one of the most diverse athletes in the state his senior year, passing and rushing for more than 1,000 yards and also returning a kick and punt for a touchdown. He accounted for 2,196 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior.

DeCicco led the Jaguars to one PIAA and two WPIAL championships in football and was a four-year letterman in basketball, scoring 1,028 career points.

He went on to a four-year career as a strong safety at Pitt. In 2009, he was named to the All-Big East team.

He was signed by the NFL’s Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2011 and also played for Tampa Bay and Minnesota.

“I’m very honored be inducted,” DeCicco said. “The school has had a long history of success in academics, arts and sports. Ever since I can remember, TJ has been the gold standard for sustained success in all sports.

“There have been many great teams to come through TJ and, obviously, with that comes many great individuals in their respected sports. To be recognized as one at a school like TJ is pretty special.”

DeCicco had high praise for two main influences on his athletic career: his dad, Dom, head coach of the TJ boys basketball program, and Bill Cherpak, TJ’s athletic director and head football coach.

“My dad has been there every step of the way for me throughout my life,” DeCicco said. “I was a hard-headed kid that was obsessed with sports and being the best. I was hard on myself when I failed and his response was always, ‘Work harder.’

“We spent countless nights practicing at baseball parks, basketball courts and football fields, just the two of us. The work ethic he instilled in me from a young age is why I had the success I had.”

Cherpak is the all-time winningest coach in TJ football history. He is known belovedly as “Cherp” to the TJ athletes and student body.

“I’ve had a lot of coaches at every level that made an impact on my life but none to the level of Cherp,” DeCicco said. “He was the only person who had higher expectations for myself than I did. Whenever I thought I couldn’t push myself any harder, he taught me it was possible.

“He didn’t care who you were or what your status was on the team; everyone was equally held accountable. It was always about the team and what’s best for the team. To be able to be coached by the best football coach in that state’s history is rare and something I don’t take for granted. He is one of my biggest mentors and closest friends to this day and I am forever grateful to him.”

DeCicco, a 2007 TJ graduate, is employed as an area scout for the San Francisco 49ers.

Leo Giel (1994)

Giel starred in football, wrestling and hockey. He placed fourth twice at the PIAA wrestling championships. He was lauded as a male athlete of the year at Rider in 1998-99 after placing sixth at the NCAA wrestling tournament to cap a 34-2 season and a 111-35 career record.

Giel was 7-7 in three trips to nationals in his career. As a junior, Giel beat two wrestlers who were national champions and placed third at the prestigious Midlands Tournament. Following his college career, he was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at Rider.

John Harchar (1973)

Harchar was a PIAA champion in the discus and shot put in 1973 and was a three-year starter in football. He was a two-time all-state selection and was chosen to compete in the Big 33 Classic. He also was a varsity letterman in boys basketball.

John Zeiler (2001)

Zeiler led the TJ hockey team to three Pennsylvania and Penguin Cup championships as a player. In 2022, he guided the Jaguars to their first Penguins Cup title since 2000 in his first year as the team’s head coach.

His junior training was with Sioux City of the USHL and with the Pittsburgh Hornets AAA program. Prior to the NHL, he played college hockey at St. Lawrence.

In 2007, Zeiler signed with the L.A. Kings and made his NHL debut on Feb. 17, 2007 against the Anaheim Ducks. Five days later, he scored his first NHL goal against the Vancouver Canucks.

After five seasons within the Kings organization, Zeiler left to sign abroad in the German DEL with Augsburger Panther.

2001 TJ girls volleyball team

Competing in Class 2A, the 2001 team captured TJ’s first WPIAL girls volleyball championship.

Class of 2019-20

Richard Costanzo (2004)

A two-time All-American in boys soccer, Costanzo scored a school-record 124 goals in three years and led TJ to the PIAA Class 2A boys title in 2002.

He currently is head coach of the men’s soccer program at George Mason. Costanzo joined the Patriots in 2022 after five seasons as an assistant at Pitt. He also spent three years as an assistant at Army from 2014-17.

Costanzo played at Penn State (2004-05), where he was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was selected as a freshman All-American. He transferred to Maryland (2006-08) and, as a senior, captained the 2008 squad to the NCAA Division I national title and ACC championship.

Costanzo played professionally with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Rochester Rhinos and Minnesota Thunder of the USSL.

He was a member of the U18 National Team in 2004 and Olympic Development Program from 2002-05.

“I am truly honored to be inducted considering all the great athletes that have come through WJHSD,” Costanzo said. “I enjoyed my time playing at TJ and all the lifelong relationships I’ve developed along the way.

“I want to thank my coach, Doc Kulish, for the incredible experience at TJ, for leading us to the state championship, and for the relationship we have developed over the years.”

Costanzo said his parents, Rich and Renee, had a major impact on his playing career.

“They always supported my ambitions and went above and beyond to help me reach my goals,” Costanzo said. “They were there for me through all the ups and downs. I am forever grateful to them.

Costanzo, inducted into the Heinz History Hall of Fame in 2012, was selected to speak to the Hall of Fame audience on behalf of the athletics inductees.

“The ceremony was really nice and professionally done,” Costanzo said.

Kelli Miller Dimidjian (1989)

Dimidjian ranks third in career scoring in TJ girls basketball with 1,290 points, and with her twin sister Karri was named to play in the first Girls Roundball All-Star Classic in 1989.

She also helped lead the girls basketball and softball teams two section championships.

Dr. William Edmonds (1981)

Edmonds is vice president for enrollment management at Edinboro University. He was a starter at defensive end/tight end on TJ’s first WPIAL championship football team in 1980. He also competed on the boys basketball team.

Mike Kopnski

Kopnski was a district teacher and coach. He taught for 35 years and was track and field coach and cross country coach for 25 years. Kopnski coached eight individual state champions and his teams won 68 consecutive dual meets.

Karri Miller Lockhart (1989)

Lockhart is the all-time leader in career scoring in TJ girls basketball with 1,357 points, and with her twin sister Kelli was named to play in the first Girls Roundball All-Star Classic in 1989.

She also helped lead the girls basketball and softball team win two section championships.

Baptiste ‘Bap’ Manzini

Manzini was inducted posthumously. He taught and was coach of the TJ football program for 16 years and never had a losing season. He was coach of the Jaguars’ first WPIAL championship football team in 1980, winning the title in his final game at TJ.

Manzini attended Saint Vincent College, where he was an all-state center. He later played in three seasons in the NFL from 1944-48 with the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions.

When his playing career ended, he coached high school football for 30 years at the former Belmar High and at TJ. His career record was 203-74-8.

Dr. Mark Onaitis (1989)

Onaitis graduated as TJ’s valedictorian in 1989 and now is chief of thoracic surgery at the UC San Diego College of Medicine. He was a starting quarterback in the TJ football program and also a starter, along with his twin brother Matt, on the boys basketball team.

In his junior year, the TJ hoopsters racked up one of the best seasons in school history. The Jaguars advanced to the WPIAL championship game and finished as a WPIAL runner-up.

Matt Onaitis (1989)

Onaitis is chief financial officer at Mainstay Medical Holdings PLC. He was a starter on the TJ boys basketball team as a senior along with his twin brother Mark.

Marla Puryear (1989)

Puryear was a six-time WPIAL individual champion in track and field and won PIAA girls 100- and 200-meter events in 1986, 1988 and 1989. She was inducted posthumously.

1980 TJ football team

The 1980 team won TJ’s first WPIAL football championship in school history and finished with a 12-1 record.

The Jaguars had a deep group of talented players that season, and team leaders included this likes Darnell Stone, Pedro Bowman, Kevin Russell, Chuck Pukansky, Bob Garchak, Gary Natter, Billy Edmonds and Bill McCormick.

Jeff Nelson, public relations coordinator for WJHSD, contributed to this story.


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