Top 10 Westmoreland County sports stories of 2020

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Wednesday, December 30, 2020 | 2:04 PM


Sports at every level, from pee wees to the pros, have been affected by the menacing coronavirus. There is no dodging it.

The global pandemic used 2020 for its big scene, an opponent teams couldn’t even see, stopping some seasons in their tracks and leaving others in tatters.

Much to the displeasure of the masses — and those who select the top local sports stories for a year-in-review — covid-19 was the top story of this year, even if it is for the wrong reasons.

The virus continues to sneer at our normality and threatens the winter season.

But 2020 wasn’t all bad, right?

It also had resolve, patience and cooperation as districts worked together to make a stand against the virus. Many teams played on, and some even won championships.

In many ways, the Westmoreland County sports scene still thrived as teams and athletes celebrated before and after the virus took hold.

A thrilling winter season had its perks before bumping heads with covid. Spring was not as fortunate, while the fall season stiff-armed the virus and reached the finish line with some highlights along the way.

Here are the top local sports stories of 2020:

10. AD carousel turns

A number of local athletic directors either changed places or took over new positions during stressful times that saw schedules get shredded, reworked and then shredded again by uncertainty.

Brandon Rapp went from Norwin to Hempfield, and Mike Burrell moved from Greensburg Salem to Norwin.

New ADs, meanwhile, took over programs at Yough (Scott Morrison), Ligonier Valley (Wesley Siko), Southmoreland (Dan Boring) and Greensburg Salem (Frank Sundry).

9. Scotties make history

The Southmoreland girls basketball team capped a 22-0 regular season with a run to its first WPIAL championship and PIAA playoffs appearances.

The Scotties hadn’t won a section since 2007 but used shutdown defense to steal and block their way to program history.

8. Six-peat for GCC

With a 99-stroke victory over the second-place team, the Greensburg Central Catholic girls golf team won a sixth consecutive WPIAL championship. The Centurions also finished second in the state.

7. Advantage, Latrobe

The Latrobe girls tennis team won its third WPIAL title, and first since 2005, as the No. 4 seed in the Class 3A tournament. The Wildcats (16-1) stayed hot in the state playoffs, finishing as the runner-up.

6. Jeannette struck by tragedy

Jeannette athletics gained perspective after losing a legendary coach, a relative of its current football coach and a former star player in five months’ time.

Former football coach Joe Mucci died earlier this month because of complications from covid-19. His death followed that of Dana Hall, the sister-in-law of Jayhawks coach Roy Hall. She also died from covid-19. The team honored her by wearing helmet decals for the PIAA Class A championship in Hershey.

In July, Jeannette mourned the loss of former three-sport standout Tre Cunningham, who was killed in a motorcycle accident.

5. Mat champs

Three local wrestlers captured PIAA individual championships in Hershey.

Norwin senior Kurtis Phipps (126 pounds), Latrobe freshman Vinny Kilkeary (106) and Hempfield junior Ethan Berginc (113) won gold medals in Class AAA.

Phipps became the first PIAA wrestling champ at Norwin in the program’s 84-year history. Kilkeary is the fourth Latrobe wrestler to win a state title, and Berginc, a Jeannette student who competes for Hempfield via a co-op, is the sixth PIAA champion from Jeannette and the 12th from Hempfield.

4. Winter state playoffs, spring sports dashed

The pandemic sank its teeth into high school sports in March as the back end of the PIAA basketball and swimming postseasons were long delayed before ultimately getting canceled.

What followed was crushing as the PIAA canceled spring sports, leaving baseball, softball, track and field, boys volleyball, boys tennis and lacrosse teams frustrated and idle.

3. Jeannette football wins 10th title

After it was dealt a season-opening loss to Clairton, Jeannette returned the favor — in a big way — in the WPIAL Class A championship. The Jayhawks dismantled the nemesis Bears, 45-14, to capture their 10th WPIAL title.

2. Covid-19 thrashes college sports

The Division II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and Division III Presidents’ Athletic Conference canceled spring and fall seasons in 2019-20, and winter sports for 2020-21, but left the door open for possible competition in the spring.

Seasons also were wiped out in the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference, among others. That meant no competition for Seton Hill, Saint Vincent and Pitt-Greensburg.

But not all stories were bad news at the college level.

While he didn’t get the chance to defend his NCAA title, Franklin Regional graduate Spencer Lee was recognized for his supreme wrestling abilities last March.

The Iowa junior was the winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s version of the Heisman Trophy. He went 18-0 and was the top seed at 125 pounds for the NCAA championships, which were canceled because of the pandemic.

Lee is a two-time NCAA champion and is 63-5 in his college career.

1. Legends of the fall

With the pandemic looming, Franklin Regional not only worked around restrictions but also celebrated a surprisingly successful fall season.

The girls volleyball team won its first WPIAL championship and made the PIAA finals, and the boys golf team won its first WPIAL title and made the state playoffs.

The boys soccer team reached the WPIAL championship for the third straight year, with standout junior forward Anthony DiFalco earning All-American honors for the second year in a row.

In addition, the girls soccer and girls golf teams made the WPIAL playoffs, and senior golfer Chuck Tragesser finished second at the PIAA championship.

Honorable mention

• The area grieved the losses of notable athletes and contributors, including baseball player Maclean Maund, a former Penn-Trafford star pitcher who was set to play at Seton Hill. He died in a January car accident.

Former Mt. Pleasant athlete Dom Giallonardo, whose touching comeback story inspired many, died on Nov. 1 after a six-year battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma. He was 19.

Westmoreland County Coaches Association President Larry Sellitto died suddenly on Christmas. And former Southmoreland three-sport athlete Brandon Peterson was hit by a tractor trailer and killed while changing a tire on Dec. 22 along Route 119.

Successful former Ligonier Valley baseball coach John Jones also died in December of cancer. He was 52.

• With a 13-12 victory over Knoch on Sept. 18, Greensburg Salem became the fifth football program in WPIAL history to claim 700 wins.

• Greensburg Central Catholic saw both of its soccer teams win WPIAL championships. The girls and boys also made the PIAA finals in Hershey. The WPIAL had state finalists in all eight classifications.

• Penn-Trafford’s field hockey team won its fifth consecutive WPIAL championship.

• Greensburg Salem won a WPIAL boys cross country championship.

• Latrobe made it to the PIHL championship but the game eventually was cancelled due to covid-19.

• Jeannette saw the emergence of freshman quarterback Brad Birch. The first ninth-grader to start under center in the storied program, Birch threw for 1,676 yards and 30 touchdowns and helped lead the Jayhawks to their 10th WPIAL title and a state runner-up.

• Derry, Hempfield and Southmoreland all had their final two football games erased by the pandemic as positive cases surfaced at each school.

• Franklin Regional grad Aidan Fisch, who spent last year as a team manager, made the Pitt men’s basketball team as a walk-on.

• Ligonier Valley began play in the WPIAL after moving in from District 6. The boys golf team played the first event for the Rams in District 7. The football team, a juggernaut in its previous league, finished 4-3, while the girls soccer team made the WPIAL playoffs.

• Covid forced the cancellation of most of the Westmoreland County Coaches Association events, while other events like the YWCA awards banquet and the WPIAL football and basketball playoff pairings meetings also fell victim.

• The Belle Vernon boys basketball team reached the WPIAL Class 4A championship and the second round of the PIAA playoffs. The Leopards, led by a cohesive group of seniors and standout guard Devin Whitlock, saw their magical run end after an epic, four-overtime loss to Lancaster Catholic, 84-82.

• Southmoreland basketball player Bailey Kuhns, one of the team’s top players, transferred midseason to Greensburg Central Catholic.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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